Congratulations to Darcie Apple for her idea for the story Nothing To Hide!
Today’s story idea comes from Cheryl Meyer. This one has been a very difficult one for me to even contemplate. Get the tissue out. Here’s her idea…
Character: Middle-aged twins
Setting: Last minute flight across country
Conflict: One of the twins has terminal cancer and the other is racing to the hospital bed (racing death)
“I can’t tell ya how much I really hate flying,” the old woman said, nudging Valerie. “Don’t ya hate it too?”
“I suppose so,” Valerie said.
“Used to be you could fly cheaper than you could drive. You know. And they’d give you all kinds of snacks. Peanuts, pretzels. They’d even serve a meal every once in awhile. They always forgot my Kosher meal. But I wasn’t one to complain. Gave me a good excuse to eat a little bacon. You know what I’m saying? And they’d let you use one of them warmed up blankets. So nice on a long flight.” The old woman nudged Valerie again. “You got a long ways to go?”
“Seattle.” Valerie shifted her body so the woman couldn’t thrust her fleshy elbow into her again.
“Oh, that’s so far. So very far.” The woman looked at Valerie. She touched the tip of her nose with a crooked finger. “Remind me, dear, where is Seattle? Is that in Idaho?”
“Washington,” Valerie answered. “The state.”
The woman still looked confused.
“Between Canada and California. Right by Oregon.”
“You know how I always remember the capital of Oregon?” The woman smiled. “Salem. Because smoking Salem cigarettes will ruin your organs. Get it Or-e-gon?”
Valerie attempted a polite smile. It turned out more like a sneer.
“So, business or pleasure?” the woman asked. “Or both. Sometimes business can be a pleasure. Other times pleasure can be business.”
“Neither,” Valerie said.
“Do you live out there?”
“No. I live in Manhattan.”
“Then what are you going all the way to Seattle for?” The old woman was getting flustered. “I never was any good at guess games.”
“To see my sister.”
“How nice. Is she older or younger?”
“We’re the same.” Valerie looked at her raggedly chewed nails. “She’s my twin.”
“Oh, how fun. I’ll bet you loved being a twin. Did your mother dress you the same?”
“No. My mother wanted us to be our own people.”
“Well,” the woman frowned. “I don’t know what that’s all about.”
The flight attendant spoke across the loud speaker. Instructed the passengers on the emergency exits, how to put the oxygen masks on, that it was a federal offense to smoke in the bathroom.
“Oh, how they go on,” the old woman whined. “As if any of us will remember a single word of it if this plane goes down.”
The “buckle your belt” light clicked on with a chime.
“Prepare for takeoff,” the pilot said dully over the intercom.
“Now, if you’re going to visit your twin sister, how would it not be considered pleasure. That’s what I want to know.”
“It just isn’t one of those trips.” Valerie braced herself for the jostling of takeoff.
“Then what kind of trip is it? I mean, unless the two of you are estranged or fighting.” The woman looked at Valerie. “So, what kind of trip is it? It’s a simple question.”
“I’m going to be with her through something pretty hard.”
“For goodness sake. Why won’t you just come out and tell me why you’re going? It is some kind of secret?”
“I don’t know you. Why would I tell you anything?”
“Because sometimes it’s relieving to tell a perfect stranger intimate details of your life.”
“You’re just nosy.”
The airplane gained speed as it raced down the pavement.
“Well, I’m just trying to make polite conversation.”
“If you must know,” Valerie said, feeling the upward thrust of the plane. “My sister is dying.”
Their ears popped as they were carried higher and higher into the sky. The old woman looked at Valerie with pity tears in her eyes. She reached her hand to touch the young woman’s arm.
Valerie nodded. Closed her eyes. “Just pray to whatever god you have that there are no delays.”
The woman blinked quickly. “Yes. Of course.”
“She’s just trying to hold on until I get there.” Valerie grabbed the woman’s hand. “Can you pray right now? I don’t even know who to address it to. Just go ahead.”
The old woman clenched her eyes closed. “Jesus…”
“Wait,” Valerie interrupted. “I thought you were Jewish. The whole Kosher thing.”
The woman looked at her. “Messianic. Some of us like to keep the old Jewish traditions. We just happen to believe that Jesus was the right guy.”
“Jesus,” the woman continued. “No delays. Get this young woman there on time. Amen.”
Valerie opened one eye. “Is that it?”
“That’s all it needs to be.”
The two women held hands for a long while in silence until the old woman nodded off and started snoring.
The landing had been smooth. So smooth it didn’t wake up the old woman.
“Right this way,” the flight attendant said, motioning for Valerie to go with her.
“Thanks for understanding,” Valerie said, standing. She pulled her bag from the overhead compartment.
“No delays,” the old woman whispered, her eyes opened just a bit. “Jesus, go with her.”
Valerie passed through the aisles as fast as she could, trying to avoid hitting the seated passengers with her bag. The door had just been opened. The flight attendant put her hand on Valerie’s shoulder.
“I hope you make it on time,” she said.
“Thanks. Me too,” Valerie said, walking out the door.
“How’s she doing?” Valerie asked in her phone as she walked briskly through the terminal.
“Holding on,” her mother answered. “The Hospice nurse said it would be today.”
“How can they even know that?”
“I don’t know, honey. Just get here.”
“I’m working on it, Mom.” Valerie picked up her pace. “Tell her to wait for me. Okay?”
“We keep telling her. She’s trying, Val.”
“Okay. Love you.”
She made it to the gate and boarded her second plane. Her heart kept a steady beat and each throb pushed anxiety further into her body.
“Over here,” Valerie’s father called to her as she walked out of the airport. “Did you check any bags?”
“No. I didn’t have time to pack. Just a few shirts.” Valerie hugged him. “Where’s the car?”
He took her carry-on in and slung it over one arm. He grabbed her around her shoulders with the other. It was the first time she felt safe enough to let go. He squeezed her tighter as she cried.
The home where Valerie and her twin sister grew up had been transformed into a hospital. The bedroom they’d once shared was filled up with a mechanical bed, oxygen tank, a commode. Prescription bottles lined the counters in the kitchen. The Hospice nurse had made the dining room into an office. The living room had become the place for family to sit and wait to spend time with Jane as she lay in her bed.
Valerie and her father walked into the living room. It was silent. Too quiet.
“Should I go right up to the room?” Valerie asked. Her voice sounded thin and weak. “Or should I…”
“No, go on,” her father said. “To your old room.”
She took the steps quickly.
“Is that you, Val?” her mother called from the bedroom.
“Yes, Mom,” Valerie answered. “Am I too late?”
She reached the doorway. Her sister was in the bed. A blanket was tucked all around her. She was thin and pale. Jane’s eyes were closed.
“Hi, honey,” her mother said. “How was the flight?”
“Too long.” Valerie walked in and sat on a chair next to the bed. “I wanted to get here way sooner.”
“I know.” Her mother stood a little, felt Jane’s forehead. “The nurse said it won’t be long. Jane hasn’t opened her eyes since yesterday.”
“Do you think it’s the meds? They might be making her sleep.”
“No, honey.” Her mother looked up. “She isn’t just sleeping.”
Valerie touched her sister’s hand. It was cold and had a bluish tint. She lowered her head onto the hand. The grief burned through her entire body.
The Hospice nurse knocked on the door. “You mind if I come and check on Jane for a minute?”
Valerie sat up. She hadn’t meant to sleep bent over like that, with her head on Jane’s hand. Her neck was sore. Her mother wasn’t in the chair across the bed from her.
“You must be Valerie,” the nurse said. “You and Jane look so much alike.”
“Yeah.” Valerie rubbed her neck. “We played tricks on just about everyone.”
“I bet.” The nurse lifted up the blanket and felt Jane’s feet. “I just want you to know what I’m doing. I’m checking her feet and hands to see how far she’s progressed.”
“Progressed?” Valerie took her sister’s hand. “That’s a strange word choice.”
“It won’t be long, Valerie.” She pulled the sheet back over Jane’s feet. “You need to know that so you’re ready.”
“I’m not going to be ready. There’s no way.”
“I know. I know it. How about you talk to her for a bit. The sense of hearing remains active until death. Talk to her. It’s good for both of you.”
The nurse checked Jane’s pulse, listened to her breathing, smoothed her hair.
“Thank you.” Valerie stood. She felt lost. For the first time in her life she didn’t know what to say to her sister. When they were young she would sneak into bed with Jane so they could talk about boys. In college they’d break curfew to drink coffee and gab all night long. After Valerie moved to New York, they’d call each other several times a day.
“Just make sure you tell her that you love her,” the nurse said. “And that you’re going to be okay.”
“But I don’t know that I will be okay.”
“You’ll have to be.” The nurse smiled before she turned and walked down the steps.
Valerie sat down on the edge of the bed. “Hey, Janie, it’s me.” She swallowed hard. “Do you even know how awkward this is? Well, probably not. But it’s really weird and I have no idea what to say.”
Jane’s eyelids fluttered just slightly.
“Well, I’m here. It was a really long flight. And there was this crazy lady sitting next to me.” She rubbed her thumb on Jane’s hand. “Anyway, I’m not ready for you to…you know…go. That’s just not going to happen. We’re too young for this.”
She wiped her nose on her sleeve. “And I don’t know if I’m going to be okay. Like ever.”
Valerie allowed herself to cry a bit more. “But I know that you need me to let you go. And I don’t want this cancer to keep eating you up.” She closed her eyes. “I’ll never understand why this happened to you and not me. I mean, we’ve got the same everything. DNA, eyes, hair, voice. Why would your cells do this and not mine? I wish it was me and not you.”
She sat, quietly holding Jane’s hand. “I love you.” She lowered herself closer and kissed Jane’s cheek. “And so I’ll find a way to be okay. You can go.”
Valerie waited. She watched. She soothed. And she lost her twin. For the first time in her whole life, she was alive without Jane.