The older twin woke to the sound of her sister mumbling, though she couldn’t make out what she was saying. She looked toward the bed and saw her sister shaking and thrashing, the sheets falling away. The mumbling became moans. Frightened, the older twin got out of bed. She tried touching her sister’s shoulder to wake her up. The younger twin’s eyes opened, and for a moment the older twin was relieved. But then her eyes rolled back in her head and the shaking resumed. Froth formed at her mouth. What was wrong with her sister? The older twin cried, backing away from the bed. She fled the room and down the hall to wake her parents.
With her back pressed against the wall at the top of the stairs, the older twin looked out the open front door. Specks of snow floated before the flashing red and blue lights of the ambulance.
A man clomped up the steps in heavy black boots, turned down the hallway and disappeared into the bedroom she shared with her sister. He said some things when he entered, but his voice was deep in the back of his throat, and the older twin couldn’t make out the words. Her mother’s soft voice answered the man, though all the older twin could hear were the s’s, as if she were whispering prayers or secrets. Then her dad’s voice came through clearly, “But how did this happen?” The deep voice said something else and then there were shuffling sounds, the creaking of bedsprings, and soon, the man with the black boots came out of the room with the younger twin in his arms. She was still now, and her eyes were closed. Somehow, this frightened her more, the stillness. The older twin pressed her back harder against the wall and held her breath as the man passed her and descended the stairs. She wanted to close her eyes, but found that she couldn’t. Her parents followed the man, her mother whispering pleas to the Virgin Mary, her dad shaking his lowered head back and forth.
When the front door shut behind them, the older twin let out her breath in one shaky huff and peeled herself off the wall. She crept down the hall and entered her bedroom. Things were mostly the same as they always were. The curtains were closed, as they usually were at night. The two single beds were still pushed up against opposite walls. On her bed, the messy covers and sideways pillow was normal, but her sister’s bed looked strange with the sheets pulled back and the pillow on the floor. Her sister always made her bed right away in the morning. She’d swing her feet out of bed, stand up, and pull the sheet tight, then the quilt. The older twin did these things now. And then, just like her sister, she stood the pillow up against the headboard and smoothed out the pillowcase.
Something was missing. In front of the pillow there should be a stuffed dog, the one the younger twin slept with and held any time she was scared or anxious, which wasn’t often unless they had to go to the doctor or the dentist. Anyplace that liked to poke the two of them with sharp objects.
While the older twin liked just to hold her mother’s hand and close her eyes during shots, the younger twin flailed and screamed, not letting the nurse anywhere near her with the needle. After pleading with the younger twin to please just sit still, it’ll be over quicker if you would just sit still, peanut, her mom had presented the dog to her with the promise that he would help the shots not hurt so much. The dog, therefore, had soaked up many of the younger twin’s tears, and the mom didn’t have to hold her daughter’s arms down anymore.
The older twin searched the floor and found the dog lying under the bed. She picked it up and held it close. Then, with the dog in her arms, she left the bedroom and made her way downstairs to wait for her parents to remember she was there.
Her sister was often sick, and had to lie in bed with a nebulizer, their mother brooding over her, placing holy water on her chest, their dad checking in often and saying, “How are you doing, peanut?” The younger twin would nod, holding the mouthpiece with her teeth while the twins played card games like Go Fish and War. The two of them stopped often to watch the vapor swirling out of the machine. Just yesterday afternoon, she was sent home early from school to sit with her nebulizer because she’d overdone it in the jump rope competition during gym class—she won that competition, and held the nebulizer mouthpiece to a smile on her face that she wore for the rest of the evening.
But whenever the older twin complained of a headache or a bellyache, her parents would sigh, her mom pinching the bridge of her nose, and tell her to go lie down if it hurt so much. They didn’t check in on her or ask how are you feeling, pumpkin?
She often watched her twin carefully to discover what it was that elicited such caring attention from her parents. Perhaps it was the way the younger twin seemed to be afraid of everything, clinging to their mother’s leg at the grocery store while the older twin twirled down the aisles, causing her mother to call her name sharply to get back here, for goodness sake.
The older twin had trouble reconciling her own lack of fear. On their first day of kindergarten, the older twin marched up to the other girls in her class, held up her left hand, and showed them her ruby-colored birthstone ring. “Like my ring?” she asked, sure her sister was right behind her. But when she looked, the younger twin was cowering in a corner by herself, and the older twin wondered if she should be doing the same. Some of the girls sniggered at the older twin. “Are you getting married or something?” one of them said. The older twin blushed and moved away from the girls and toward her sister. She suddenly felt her sister must be right, sure shyness was the proper attitude.
But even in the past two and a half years since then she often forgot to be shy until she’d already made a fool of herself like she had that first day of kindergarten. In those times, she liked to go back to her sister who never laughed at her or made her feel foolish, who let her talk or sing as much as she liked.
Out the dark kitchen window, the older twin saw her mom stepping into the back of the ambulance. She wished she could squeeze her hand. Instead, she held the stuffed dog up to the window in case her sister could see her.
Her dad stood at the end of the driveway, watching the ambulance doors close. She could see his breath every time he exhaled. It was weird to see him out of his dirty work clothes, his hands not black from grease. He would come home from work each day and hold the twin’s faces with those black hands and blow raspberries on their cheeks, the coarse hairs from his beard tickling and scratching them until they squirmed away, laughing.
The ambulance pulled away, and the dad rushed back into the house. He did not hold her face in his hands, and he did not blow a raspberry on her cheek. Instead, he rummaged around in the hall closet and pulled out a coat and hat. He pulled the hat over her head, and even though it was the wrong hat—her sister’s—she didn’t say anything. Her dad’s quiet focus terrified her. In his rush, he shoved her feet into her boots, causing her ankle to buckle, and she yelped. He took the boot off, examined it for malfunction. He did not shout; he was not the type of dad who shouted, but instead presented logical explanations she sometimes could and sometimes could not follow.
Now, however, he did not explain anything, but kept shaking his head back and forth and mumbling to himself. When he held the boot to her foot again, she made sure to point her toes and flex her ankle.
The older twin opened her mouth, but her dad didn’t look in her direction. She didn’t know what she wanted to say, only to break the concentration that reverberated off the walls and filled the room. His eyes glanced by her as he gathered the rest of their things. She closed her mouth and stood by the door, clutching the dog in her arms.
Finally, her dad put on his own coat, checked his pockets, and grabbed the keys from the counter in the kitchen.
“Let’s go,” he said.
While the older twin watched the lights of passing cars blur by, she thought about her sister dying. She didn’t want to think about it, but the thought crept into her mind. She tried to imagine her birthday with only one cake instead of two. Tried to imagine her bedroom with only one bed in it. Wondered who would play Barbies with her when she finally got a Barbie Dream House. But the thought of her sister gone forever would not stick permanently in her mind. She was always just around a corner, in another room, or propped up on her pillows, the nebulizer held up to her mouth. She just couldn’t lose her sister. It couldn’t be possible. Her sister was her best friend, her only friend.
Not that the two never fought; they fought daily over toys and hairbrushes, and what game to play next or whose turn it was to shut off the bedroom light. Sometimes the arguments turned into brawls, the two of them kicking and biting, pulling hair. Then one of them would burp or fart and send the two of them into fits of laughter. They always moved on, neither caring to resolve the conflict, neither holding it against the other. They did not have the capacity to recognize that this made them different from others.
Once, they even tried to make up their own language, a way for the two of them to communicate without others understanding. They sat on a blanket in the middle of the lawn with notebook and pencils, rearranging the alphabet and inventing new words for the things they saw.
“Go will be da,” the younger twin said, and the older twin said, “Yeah, and go away will be da awa.”
“Safe will be callow,” the younger twin said.
“Unfair will be hooj,” the older twin said, and the two laughed at how silly the new words sounded before writing them down in the notebook.
They never finished creating the language, but found that they could understand each other with fewer and fewer words, sentences reduced to single words, responses became nods of the head.
“What?” the younger twin might ask.
The older twin would shrug.
“How about?” the younger twin would ask.
The older twin would nod in agreement, and the two would run off to do whatever the younger twin had suggested they do: throw a football on the front lawn, or take over the entire living room with their Barbies, the furniture becoming houses for each one.
Dreamily, the older twin followed her dad through the hospital, one hand clutching her sister’s stuffed dog, the other she brushed against the wallpaper. Wavy lines rose vertically, and she could scratch her fingernails along the bumps and make a sound like a playing card attached to her bike spokes with a clothespin. The sound and feel of it soothed her slightly. Her dad walked too fast and had to stop and wait for her at the end of the hall. It reminded her of a game he played with the them. He would chase them through the house, and then disappear around a corner. When they tiptoed back down the hall, he would jump out and scare them, sending them screaming and laughing back through the house.
These were during times when the younger twin wasn’t sick, though sometimes the running and screaming and laughing would set her lungs off, and the game would stop, their dad rubbing the younger twin’s back and telling her to take deep breaths, peanut, deep breaths, while their mother ran for the rescue inhaler. When this happened, the older twin would watch her parents for a moment, wishing they would rub her back and worry over her. Then she would slump off to her bedroom and make up a game of her own with stuffed animals, dolls, colored pencils, or whatever else she could find. Eventually, she began to cherish this time alone, time she didn’t have to feel invisible because there was no one there to see her anyway.
Now, when she caught up to her dad, he let out his breath and took off again, too fast, and when he looked back, saw her lagging and stopped again. He didn’t say anything to her or look at her directly, his eyes darting from wall to wall, ceiling to floor as he waited for her to catch up.
They found her mom, and the older twin wanted to run to her, to be scooped up in her arms, to squeeze her hand. But immediately her dad began to press her mom for answers.
“What’s going on? Do they know what happened? What went wrong?”
The mother put her hands up as if to deflect the onslaught of questions. She shook her head back and forth. “They’re going to run some tests. But it doesn’t matter. She’s okay for now.”
“Of course it matters,” the dad said. The older twin took a step back at the sound of desperation in his voice. “What if it happens again?”
“We’ll just have to pray that it won’t,” the mom said.
The dad scoffed. “I need more than that. I need to know how to stop this from happening again.”
The mom’s face scrunched up in anger, and the older twin took another step back.
The dad lowered his voice, but was still plenty audible from across the room. “What if we hadn’t gotten there in time? What if we hadn’t woken up?”
The mom glanced toward the older twin now, saw her standing with her back pressed against the wall, and went to her.
“You did the right thing waking us, pumpkin,” she said. Then she sighed heavily. “Your sister had a seizure. The doctors and nurses are taking care of her, but I want you to say a prayer for her too, to help her get better. We just want her better.” She glanced sideways at the dad, who was running his hands through his hair. The mom pinched the bridge of her nose and exhaled slowly. The older twin looked down at the dog and held it closer. She could feel the tears welling up in her eyes. Her throat hurt.
Her mom got up and pulled back the thin curtain that blocked a bed. The older twin saw her sister lying still on the bed, her eyes closed. She wished she could climb into the bed with her, under the scratchy blanket and go to sleep next to her. The bed was certainly large enough to hold them both, or rather the twins were small enough. At the very least, she thought she should bring her sister her stuffed dog. But she found she couldn’t move. Her dad approached her mom again.
“What are we going to do about this?” he asked her.
The mom pinched her nose again. “Please don’t start,” she said.
The dad raised his shoulders. “What do you want me to do?”
“You always get like this. I’m exhausted.”
The mom looked at the dad. She lowered her voice. “I’m trying to trust, here. I’m trying to have faith that everything will work out. You make it very hard to do that.”
The older twin could hear her mom’s voice crack, and she felt the sting in her own eyes.
“Sometimes faith isn’t enough,” the dad said. The mom just stared at him.
A nurse wearing scrubs with puppies and kittens on them came by and set a tray down on the table next to the bed. The mom wiped her eyes and put a hand on the dad’s elbow as he approached the nurse. He shook her off, but looked back at her as if in apology.
“What happened,” he asked the nurse. And before she could answer, “What’s wrong with her brain? What went wrong?”
“We don’t know for sure, yet, but the doctors will run some tests.”
“You must have some idea,” the dad said.
The mom cleared her throat loudly. The dad glared at her, then turned back to the nurse.
“Don’t you?” the dad asked.
“The doctors will be able to answer your questions when they run those tests,” the nurse said, her eyebrows raised.
“Just let her do her job,” the mom said out of the corner of her mouth.
The older twin watched the nurse take a large needle from the tray and hold it up to examine it. She looked from the needle to her sleeping sister, and her heart sank as understanding came over her. The older twin stepped forward, her boots squeaking.
“No,” she said. Her voice was still raw from sleep. The nurse and her mom and dad all whipped their heads in the direction of the older twin, and she could feel the heat from their eyes all suddenly on her at once.
“No,” the older twin said again more clearly. She glanced toward her sister lying still in the bed.
“This is just to help her get better,” the nurse explained. The mom nodded her head. The dad looked at her like he did sometimes when he was trying to fix some part on the car and she asked too many questions: eyebrows furrowed, mouth taut, exceptionally tired.
“You want her to get better don’t you?” The nurse talked to her in that way adults sometimes talk to kids. Like kids don’t understand anything. Like somehow talking in a high-pitched voice made things clearer.
The older twin felt her cheeks getting hot. She wanted to scream, but knew she couldn’t or shouldn’t. She cried then, letting the tears and snot soak into the synthetic fur of the stuffed dog. “No,” she croaked, shaking her head back and forth. Her mom came and put an arm around the older twin. Her dad came, too and began rubbing her back with the open palm of his hand.
“It’s okay, pumpkin,” the mom said. “She won’t even feel it.”
“Everything—” the dad hesitated, looked at the mom, and continued. “Everything will be okay. I’m sure of it.” He nodded his head as if to show how sure he was.
The older twin couldn’t make them understand. She had to stop them. Didn’t they know how her sister hated shots? Between sobs, she gasped. She tried to speak, to scream. But she chocked on her tears, could not make herself understood. Her mother wrapped her in both arms, tight, as if to squeeze the fear out of her, and the older twin put her head on her mother’s shoulder and sobbed, hanging onto the dog by one of his paws. She was hot, and her eyes felt heavy. She wished she could sleep like her sister was. Wished she were in the bed instead of her sister. That the nurse was lifting the sleeve of her pajama shirt instead of her sister’s, pinching her skin with index finger and thumb, sticking the needle into her arm. Her sister flinched, slightly, but did not wake up. The older twin moaned, suddenly wished her sister would wake up and scream and cry and flail her arms and legs. But she lay still, the needle deep in her skin.
The older twin pulled the dog close to her face, letting him absorb the tears she cried for her sister. She wanted to stay like that, to let her parents hold her and rub her back with the open palms of their hands. For them to push the hair out of her tear-soaked face and tell her it’s okay, pumpkin, just breathe. It felt good to be held. To be seen.
But looking at her sister alone in the large bed after the nurse left with the tray and used needle caused a pain inside of her that she couldn’t express. She kicked her legs gently so that her mother would release her. In a few quick steps, she was at her sister’s bedside.
“Pumpkin, leave her,” her dad said, but she didn’t listen, didn’t turn to look at him.
She pulled back the blanket covering her sister’s shoulders, noticed the Bugs Bunny bandage strip covering the place where the needle had gone in. Her put mother a hand on her arm, but the older twin shook her off. She gave the dog one last squeeze, wiped her eyes with his paw, and then tucked him into the bed with her sister and replaced the cover.
And with that, she sank to the cold tile floor and lay down, exhausted, her head resting on her arm, and waited for the younger twin to wake up.
About the Author
Kelsey Askwith has recently completed an MFA in creative writing at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN. She is a proud stay-at-home mom to her four children. This is her first publication.