Hope woke up knowing that today would be the day that her sister would die. Groggily shaking off the last lingering moments of slumber, she eased herself out from under the blankets, trying to ignore the chill of the morning. She had woken earlier than she normally would. The sun was still in the process of rising, and as she peered out her window, the brilliant oranges and pinks lit up the few feet of bare backyard before it ran into the neighbor’s ugly brown fence.
As she looked out at the sunrise, pieces of the dream she had been having began to slowly come back to her. The location of the dream was unclear; everything was dark. The only light came from a hospital bed that was a few feet in front of where Hope was standing—no, sitting. The pale sheets seemed to glow as they enveloped the body of her ten-year-old sister, Mariah, in light. The young girl’s light brown hair was fanned out around her, and though her body was still, and her eyes were closed, her colorless lips were moving. The voice that accompanied the movements of Mariah’s mouth, however, was not her own but a deep male voice, one that might be on the radio or narrating a documentary.
Hope did not know how she could tell, but it was clear to her that the voice was speaking to no one specifically. It sounded as if it was addressing a large audience, but she was the only one around. It was a passionate voice that seemed to believe everything it was saying.
“When nightmares fulfill your wishes and dreams scare the hell out of you, you are forced to confront yourself. Eventually, the line between dreams and nightmares blurs until it disappears completely. The thing that scares you the most—that makes you want to throw the blanket over your head and hug your teddy bear until you can convince yourself that the world outside of your cozy darkness no longer exists—this is the thing that simultaneously fills you with courage and excitement and all things good and makes you ready to take on every challenge the world could possibly present and finally allows you to really live. This thing causes your heart to beat faster and faster until you can’t even remember if it is happening because you are afraid or excited.
This is illumination.
This is when you are afraid of the dawn simply because you don’t know what it will bring or what you will see in the new light. The night before was warm and comfortable, and you knew exactly what to expect. But dawn comes whether you want it or not, and you have to face the new day, good or bad.”
The last line was not directed to the same audience. Hope somehow knew that the voice was talking to her. The voice had stopped speaking, and her sister’s body was now completely still. A moment of silence enveloped Hope, and then she realized that her parents were sitting next to her. She wondered how she had not noticed them before because they must have been there the entire time. They were both staring at Hope, neither one blinking, neither one moving. Their expressions seemed almost hateful, definitely resentful. Their expressions did not surprise or bother Hope. What did surprise her was that they were staring at her instead of her sister.
Hope did not remember any more of the dream, but what she did remember was enough to confuse her. She was not sure if she would call it a dream or a nightmare. She wasn’t sure if it mattered. The only thing that seemed absolutely certain after the dream was that Mariah was going to die today.
Hope slipped on some socks to soften the cold of the freezing tile floors and walked into the modest kitchen where her father was reading the newspaper and her mother was buttering a piece of toast. Neither one looked up as she entered, but then she hadn’t really expected them to. Even before the accident, she had always faded into the background. After the accident, though, it had only gotten worse. Her parents had much more important things to worry about than talking to their seventeen-year-old daughter who was completely average in every way. Their other daughter was more important, and, though Hope might have argued with that before, she wouldn’t now. The smell of coffee was no different than any other day, but the atmosphere was somehow tenser in the seemingly forced calmness. She wondered if they could feel it too, if they could tell that today was different.
They had dedicated so much energy and emotion into just waiting, and they were tired. And yet the knowledge that the end was coming gave Hope an alertness that hadn’t existed for the last six months. This was the day they had been waiting for—the last day.
“You should eat something before we leave,” her mother advised, not bothering to look at Hope as she addressed her in a flat tone.
Hope nodded and reached for the box of cereal even though she knew it was pointless. There was a hard knot in her stomach that would not allow for food this morning. She dreaded spending another day in the hospital, but it would be more bearable because she knew it would be the last day that she would spend hours doing nothing but sitting, watching her sister and trying not to think. Her stomach clenched as she thought about what would happen today, and she knew it would be impossible to swallow a single bite. She poured a bowl anyway, trying to convince herself that nothing was different.
But she was afraid. This was the day she had been dreading.
She picked at her already chipping black nail polish and stared blankly into the depths of her bowl as if the cereal contained the answers as to why and how this had happened to her. These were things that only happened on TV or in books. Little sisters in real families don’t spend six months of their innocent little lives in comas. Hope had spent a large portion of these six months wondering how this had happened. But the answer wasn’t in her cereal bowl; it was in her. It was hidden deep enough that she had been able to ignore it until now. But today Hope could face it because soon it would be over. The truth was that she had caused it. All of the pain her family had been through, all the sleepless nights in the hospital, even all the doctors’ bills that she knew were causing her parents so much stress—it was all her fault.
No one knew how angry Hope had been that day. She was furious about having to take Mariah to her stupid dance lesson that interrupted her busy day of reading Little Women for probably the fifteenth time. Hope was upset and careless and didn’t pay attention to how she was driving.
The age difference had always caused problems between Hope and Mariah. The seven years between the two sisters held so many differences that Hope felt they had never been able relate to each other. They had nothing to talk about. Seven years was just enough time for her to become quite comfortable being an only child. She had all the attention and all the toys to herself, and sharing had never been an issue. Then suddenly Mariah existed, and nothing was the same.
“You know she looks up to you,” her mother had told her on multiple occasions. But Hope just rolled her eyes. Little siblings almost always looked up to their brothers and sisters. It was like a rule or something. She never asked Mariah to want to be like her or follow her around or even care about anything she did.
When Hope got her license, she thought it would mean freedom, that she would be able to get away from Mariah and the family that seemed to want her more than Hope. It turned out that having a license just meant she got to spend more time with her lovely sister; she got to be the ten-year-old princess’s personal chauffeur.
There was no way Mariah could have known why Hope had been so mad that day, but that was what irritated her the most. She was babbling on about things only a ten-year-old girl could possibly care about, and she had no idea that she was the cause of all of Hope’s problems. Mariah had been born perfect. It was clear to Hope, even when she was very young, that Mariah was the better daughter. She always listened to their parents, and when she started school, she was clearly a better student. But when their parents weren’t around, she did whatever she wanted, not that she really ever wanted to do anything wrong or bad, but her pretentious attitude still annoyed Hope. She gave Hope no authority over her, even though Hope was the oldest and therefore entitled to being in charge when their parents left them at home by themselves for a few minutes. It was as if Mariah knew how much better she was than Hope, so she saw no reason to listen to her.
The only thing that Hope had on her sister was art. She could paint. At least, that’s what her art teachers told her, and she believed them. She didn’t have many other talents, but when she painted, she truly had confidence in herself, which was not a common occurrence in other situations. And while her parents always told her that her artwork was good, they never really took an interest in it the way they did with Mariah’s academic achievements. In their eyes, art was meant to be a hobby, not a passion. They never discouraged her, but they never encouraged her either. When she was younger, she painted for fun, but now she used it as an escape from her family and her perfect sister.
Mariah was ridiculously and unbelievably innocent, and it irritated Hope more than it should have. Maybe it was the fact that she just couldn’t understand. She couldn’t be more than a ten-year-old. So she couldn’t feel guilty about Hope always having to drive her around and do things for her and change her own plans to fit her ten-year-old sister’s. But she wanted her to. She wanted Mariah to know all the problems she caused simply by existing.
Mariah was still talking about nothing important when Hope finally interrupted her sister’s nonsense with all the hatred she could express in two words. “Shut. Up.”
Hope could see her intolerably sassy expression in the mirror as Mariah replied, “Make me.”
There had never existed a more obnoxious response. Hope had several words she wanted to say to her, but she didn’t dare because she knew that Mariah would only tell her parents, and that couldn’t end well. But those two words had ignited Hope’s fury, and with the intent of relating the intensity of her resentment in one sharp look, she turned to glare at Mariah in the back seat. She only managed to catch a glimpse of Mariah’s surprised face before she felt the impact.
When Hope woke up she was in the hospital.
They didn’t even tell her for two days. Just a few floors and walls separated her from her sister, who was struggling for her life, and Hope had no idea. She cried when they told her that Mariah was in a coma, but not when she saw her for the first time. At the time, they were worried, of course, but they thought that she would wake up in a few days at the longest. They never imagined that there were six long months of waiting ahead of them.
Her own injuries were minor, and she was able to go home after a couple of days, but she would be back nearly every day after that to sit with her parents by Mariah. There were times that she did not want to go, but she could not bring herself to tell her parents that. So she went and endured the silent, boring waiting process.
After two weeks, Mariah’s doctor suggested that Hope and her parents start seeing a psychiatrist. It was a standard suggestion that was made to the families of all patients in long lasting comas. The doctors said the strain that it put upon families and individuals was sometimes more damaging than if the patient had died. The constant uncertainty could cause more lasting problems than death, which is final, absolute, and irreversible. Hope refused to go, and her parents didn’t seem to think it was necessary to go either. For the first three months, they woke up every day convinced that it was the day Mariah would finally open her eyes, and everything would go back to normal.
But for Hope, things were already normal, in a way. Her life had resumed a pattern. It was constant and predictable. After school, she would drive to the hospital, do homework and wait, then go home, go to sleep and do the same thing the next day. Weekends were spent at the hospital, except for the short break on Sundays for church. At church, she went through the motions, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. She did not necessarily enjoy her life, but there was a simplicity to it that numbed her and made it easy to ignore anything that would have been a problem. She didn’t have to face any kind of unsettling emotion, and the small price for this was that she didn’t have to face any emotion at all. But she knew that this was better than admitting to the hideous things felt and the normal things that she was supposed to feel, but didn’t. Her parents had a constant expectation of change that must have been exhausting, but Hope did not, and that made it possible for her to keep going.
Eventually, the doctors started talking about options. They said it was unlikely that Mariah would ever regain consciousness. But they didn’t expect her condition to remain stable either. In a conversation that involved many tears from her mother and a few from her father, they told her family that Mariah had been fighting various infections for the last few months, but they were slowly becoming more serious. Although she had times where she was healthy, besides being in a coma, they said it was unlikely that she would stay that way for any extended amount of time.
It was one of these infections that was affecting her sister’s body now. For the last two weeks, she had seemed so much better, but then another infection had attacked out of nowhere, and, according to her doctor, it was the most critical so far. It was hard to believe that she was fighting for her life because she looked exactly the same as always, except paler. She could have been sleeping. But the doctors were more serious, and the nurses came in and out of her room more than ever.
Before today, Hope hadn’t expected the end to be so soon. In fact, she had not expected an end at all. After these six months, she had almost begun to believe that nothing would ever change. She had become comfortable in the knowledge that Mariah would have occasional infections, but nothing serious would ever happen. She couldn’t wake up, and she couldn’t die. But today Hope knew that she could die- that she would die.
Hope was brought back to the kitchen when her mother cleared her throat and reminded her that they would be leaving in about twenty minutes. Realizing that she was getting nowhere with the cereal, she left the monotonous kitchen to go get dressed. She changed out of her old tank top with a hole near the bottom and baggy sweatpants that she slept in and put on an outfit similar to what she wore everyday: a dark gray t-shirt and jeans. Brushing her hair back into a nondescript ponytail, she knew she would be able to blend in anywhere without attracting any attention. She was used to not being noticed, and that was what had become comfortable to her, so she had no reason to want to change it.
Hope and her parents drove to the hospital together. In their never-ending struggle to maintain normalcy, her mother turned on the radio and pretended to listen while staring out the window. Hope wasn’t really listening either, but she was glad for the background noise. Things had been so quiet lately, and the quiet left too much room to dwell on things she didn’t want to think about, like the day that this all began. She had spent too many long silent days by the bed of her sister, forcing away thoughts of that day and everything it had caused. She tried to think about almost anything else, but it was hard to find a topic that wasn’t painful. Her whole life now revolved around the state of her sister. She just couldn’t make herself care about anything else. It all seemed so insignificant, so pointless.
She had even stopped painting. Now that she had lost the thing she needed to escape, she didn’t feel the need to paint like she used to. She lost that constant urge to release something pent up inside of her. Not that she didn’t have plenty of things built up inside her. But these were private things that shouldn’t be released. Most of the time she did not even acknowledge these things because they were too dark. They were things that people were not supposed to think, and she could not share them with anyone, even in a form as constructive as painting.
In the hospital they sat, as usual, in silence. There was nothing left to say. The clean white walls of her sister’s tiny room surrounded Hope, making her feel trapped, and she felt a disgusting kind of satisfaction in knowing that after today, these walls would have no hold on her. There had been days when, after sitting in this room for hours, she finally had to step outside just to breathe. The brightness of the white overwhelmed her, and made all the machines and tools stand out against it. The lack of color made everything at once more prominent, forcing her to take in everything at once. It was too much. Her sister was so pale that she almost matched the colorless walls. She was surrounded by white. Her sheets were white, her hospital gown was white, and, of course, the walls were unbearably white. As Mariah slowly lost her color over the months, Hope could see that she was becoming a part of the room. She took that as a sign that Mariah would never be back.
There was a small TV in the corner of the room, and her father had it turned on to a news station. They sat around her bed, as they had every day since the accident. Hope had a book to pass the time, but she wasn’t really interested in it. Eventually, her parents decided to go get some food from the cafeteria, but Hope still wasn’t hungry, so she told them she would wait in the room. Her dad clicked the TV off as he left the room, and she felt the pressure of the silence. Unable to concentrate at all, she set her book to the side.
Staring at Mariah’s peaceful face, she felt that the moment was coming. Any minute now, the machines would start making noises, signaling that something was wrong. The constant, steady beeping would become one flat tone. Doctors would rush in and try to fix it, but they would fail. They would be burdened with the task of telling Hope and her parents that there was nothing else they could do. She would be gone.
She was painfully aware of rapid beats of her heart, each one pounding against her chest and making her wonder if it might actually break through the skin. These events could take place at any moment. The agonizing feelings of anticipation and suspense overpowered her. Hope was afraid to move, but at the same time she wanted to run out of the room and away from the hospital. She wanted to keep running forever and never have to face the end. But at the same time, she needed for something to happen. She needed some sort of closure to end this terrible apprehension.
Heart still beating wildly, Hope slowly reached for Mariah’s small hand. She gently held it while she rested her head against the cold metal rail on the bed and closed her eyes. She took deep breaths, trying to calm herself down. Feeling the faint pulse in her sister’s hand, her own finally began to slow and eventually match Mariah’s. She felt their two pulses mingling and thought about what that meant. Their hearts were beating at exactly the same time. They were closer than they had ever been. They were the same.
For a few long minutes she actually felt peaceful. The room was quiet and for the first time, the smell of disinfectant was more soothing than annoying. She tried to take in this moment. This was how she wanted to remember her. There were no feelings of hatred or jealousy, and even the guilt had momentarily subsided, and she knew that this was how it would stay once she was gone.
Eyes still closed, she felt the hair on her arms and the back of her neck raise as she got goose bumps. She had the odd sensation that she was no longer alone. Raising her head, she found herself looking into the dark brown eyes of her sister.
Mariah’s eyes were open, and Hope felt a slight pressure against her hand. Mariah’s previously limp hand was barely squeezing hers. She heard a gasp behind her and turned to see that her parents were back. They immediately rushed to Mariah’s bed, her mother already sobbing.
Hope slid her hand away from her sister’s despite the slight resistance that she felt. She got up from her chair and stepped back to give them room. She stood back, watching the happy family gathered together by the bed. The numbness of surprise was slowly fading and being replaced by an unexpected feeling of despair and confusion. She tried to smile and force the tears of joy to form in her eyes, but she found that both were impossible.