It's long. Read as much or as little as you like.
This is the first chapter of my NaNo, which is called PLAGUE BABIES for the time being.
We were six years old, and it was the hottest day of the year. My mother had all her hair pulled back, except for her frizzy bangs that bowed over her forehead like a spiderweb. I was at the window, looking down at the bare streets.
Micah said, “You're going to hurt him,” which was what he always said.
I turned around and watched Roo slip his hand into Micah's. Their hands were small and identical. Like a china doll holding itself. But Roo's fingers had tiny scars radiating out from all of his knuckles, and Micah had a band-aid wrapped around his pinky, from where he burned it badly the other day. He didn't know the stove was on.
I was pristine.
“She's not going to hurt me.” Roo said. His real name was Reuben, but we always called him Roo, because he was a little kid. I don't know what we would call him now.
Our mother finished rinsing the cookie sheet and brought it to Roo in the reclining chair. He lifted his leg up and lay it across the sheet, and she used sleeves from two of his dirty shirts to tie his ankle and thigh to either end.
“How many lollipops?” Roo asked.
“Four,” Mom said.
Roo looked at his leg while Mom rifled through the kitchen drawer. “Five,” he called.
“Fine. Fine. Five.”
“I want to sit with Roo,” I said. It was the best chair.“It's my turn.”
“You don't get a turn.” Mom came with the hammer, licking her dry lips. “It's Micah's turn, really.” She looked at him.
Micah had to let go of Roo's hand to shrink back as much as he wanted to. So he did.
Roo said, “You can go, Micah. You want a lollipop?”
He shook his head.
“Green ones,” Roo said.
“What if it hurts?” Micah said. Micah talked more about pain than any little kid in the world. Definitely more than any little kid who had never felt pain, and never would.
I was supposed to protect them. I hated Micah's bandaged fingertip.
“Do me this time,” I said.
Mom said, “Gwen, I've told you,” in her warning voice, so I backed off. I like to think that I didn't really understand what was happening.
My mother knelt by the recliner and tested the bonds on Roo's leg. “Ready?” she asked him.
“Swear five lollipops?”
“I swear,” she said, and she gave Roo's knee two solid cracks with the hammer. His knee bent back limply against the cookie sheet, and his bones tinkled like a wind chime.
I winced. Roo leaned over to look at his leg. “Did you break it?” he said.
“I think so.” Mom pushed her bangs off her sweaty forehead and untied my brother. “Get up and try to walk.”
Roo climbed out of the chair and took half a step before his leg creaked and he fell over. He laughed.
“Let's go,” Mom said. She picked up Roo and nodded for Micah and I to follow. On the way out the door, she splashed Roo with some cold water from the sink, and I splashed Micah. It was the only way to keep them cool. I was already sticky underneath my arms and behind my unbruised knees.
Our apartment building was full of open doors and empty spaces where the looters had already been. Our best friend Carly used to live in the apartment on the ground floor, but she'd died a few weeks ago, at the hospital. Roo had cried so hard he had a stuffy nose all day.
The regular hospital was across town, big and silver with state of the art equipment and doctors with foreign last names. The children's hospital was two blocks from home. Small. Quaint. Little murals on the walls. Even before Mom thought of breaking Roo's bones, we were there all the time, when one of the boys took an awkward fall or started running a fevers, and they'd get MRIs and blood tests and two doctors and three nurses pressing on all their joints and junctions and lymph nodes, feeling for something out of place.
Back then, the hospital was full and loud. Nurses in masks rushed back and forth between children screaming and coughing in beds. They shouted names of medicines and doctors that they wanted. Now I wonder what the hell they thought they were doing, since they never figured out how to fix anyone.
I'm not sure why Micah and I never got sick. Good luck. Not good genes.
At the hospital, Mom got attention, a cast for Roo, and her dose of whatever medicine they thought was working this week. She got a sterile pat on the back from Dr. Jacoby, who told her, again, how impressed he was with my mother, what a good job she was doing, how she shouldn't feel bad. How he couldn't imagine trying to raise one child with CIPA, let alone two. Before we knew anything was wrong with Micah and Roo, everyone used to tell Mom how they couldn't imagine trying to raise triplets. After their bloody lips and dry eyes and high fevers had an explanation, I was suddenly easy.
I've always hated the hospital.
When we got home, Roo toddled around on his cast, his smiling mouth stained green, four more lolipops clutched in his fat fist. He held one out to Micah, who shook his head.
“You should go next time,” Roo said.
Micah shook his head.
“Why are you so scared all the time?” Roo asked.
“What if it hurts?”
“Hurting isn't even that bad,” Roo said. “Gwen does it all the time.”
Two days later, Roo woke me up in the middle of the night and said he was dizzy. I knew he had a fever, but when I went to wake up Mom, she was in the bathroom, throwing up blood.
I wasn't very scared. It wasn't anything very new.
I lay down with Roo in his bed and held him. He was as hot and dry as a gun.
He started crying, but he couldn't make tears. He coughed blood onto my pillow and shook. He'd probably been sick for days, but he couldn't have known. The main symptom of the plague, after all, was pain. They couldn't know. Micah's organs could have been turning to soup in the bunk below of us, and he would have no idea. But they weren't.
“It'll be okay tomorrow,” I whispered to him. I kissed him. I liked playing mom, sometimes.
Anyway, he was dead by morning. He went quickly, unlike Mom, who didn't die until a few weeks later. Everything happened very close together. They died, and somewhere in there Micah and I were whisked away and pushed into our uncle's house. I don't remember Micah saying anything the whole time. Even our ultrasound pictures, Micah and Roo didn't hug. It was like the second the egg split, they happily scooted apart, or wedged me between.
I don't know that I've stopped watching Micah since the night Roo died.
Somewhere in there the plague ended. Roo and Mom were some of the last ones, and Micah and I, now our rich uncle's children, were two of the first on the exam table in the now near-empty hospital, rolling up our sleeves for the vaccination hardly anyone else could afford.
Micah cried, writhed, begged, curled up inside his shirt. “It'll hurt,” he sobbed. “It'll hurt. What if it hurts this time?”
“It won't,” I whispered to him, while the doctors crossed their arms and didn't want to wait.
“What if it does? This could be the time.”
“It's just a shot. It doesn't hurt much at all.”
It didn't. It didn't hurt enough. They gave me my shot, and I barely felt it, and Micah still squirmed away from the needles, still pleaded and hid behind my shoulder.
“Give it to me,” I said. “Give me his.”
“It doesn't work that way,” the doctor told me.
“Why not? Give it to me again. It didn't hurt enough.”
Eventually, Micah got his shot. We were marked on a list, checked off as safe, sent back to our uncle's house. On our way out the door, I saw Micah's reflection against a wall, and I jumped.
Not my reflection, just his, and I didn't know why. I knew it was the first time I thought about the implications of having just one identical twin around. That was the first of a million reflections that would always make me wonder, maybe, maybe, maybe...
A lot has changed since then. We're no longer afraid of our uncle's creaky mansion. I've stopped wondering if I maybe saw Roo that day, or if I see him every time I catch Micah in the bathroom mirror or in a shop window. I've stopped listening when someone mentions that they were at the children's hospital the other night and they heard screaming of children they couldn't find. I've stopped believing the whispered word haunted means anything more than two triplets who still have nightmares.
The plague is gone. Micah doesn't cry, and we don't talk. Now both of us act like he's made of glass.
Two things have stuck around: my hunger to feel absolutely everything, and Micah's desperate, pathological need to feel nothing.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
It's long. Read as much or as little as you like.