I’m on break when I get the call from Gram. I listen and nod along, pretending my heart isn’t seizing in my chest. “Keep me posted,” I tell her, and she sighs in exasperation.
It’s the middle of the night, and Liv is staying at a friend’s house. She texts me to say she’s coming home. It’s unsettling how comfortable my sister and I have gotten with this routine, how we know better than to run directly to the hospital as soon as we get the call. How instead we just…go about our day the best we can. Then again, it’s not like we don’t have time to kill. We won’t be allowed in the room until after eight.
At a quarter to six, my cell phone again buzzes in the pocket of my jeans. I’m not supposed to have it on me, but it’s practically impossible to enforce such a rule these days. I finish punching in the order of the family at the counter. The woman has an aggressively blonde dye job and too much foundation, and her GQ husband tries to corral the three children currently shrieking as they run through the Burger House lobby. It’s a controlled, unfamiliar sort of chaos, and the sight of it makes my chest ache.
The couple herds their rambunctious pack toward a booth and I catch Marty’s eye, mime smoking a cigarette. He shrugs, which isn’t so much a sign of permission as it is surrender. I drag the visor from my head as I push through the back door to relieve some of the literal pressure, since there isn’t much to do about the figurative. The sun, fiercely orange, is just cresting the horizon. I lean against the painted cinderblock and suck in a deep breath before I call Liv back.
“I don’t want to be here alone,” she announces.
I sigh and knead at the back of my neck, resisting the urge to tell her that she should have thought of that before. “I can bring you back here, but I have to finish my shift.” I’m hardly a ripple in the water here. They don’t need me, but we need the money. And it beats the alternative.
“Okay,” Liv agrees, too easily.
“I’ll be there in ten.” I disconnect the call and knock my head lightly against the wall, wishing I had two minutes to spare for that pretend cigarette.
During my interview, I’d bluntly told the hiring manager that an inflexible schedule was a deal breaker, and I would have an abnormal number of emergencies arise. They hired me anyway, probably out of desperation, probably underestimating my situation. There’s a lot of guilt now over getting pissed when it happens. Having a terminally ill parent gets you a pass on a lot of things but even so, holding down a job is tough for someone in my position. But places like this? I’m here more than I’m not, and they can’t afford to lose me. It works both ways, because I can’t afford to not work.
I rap my knuckles against the door so the pimply-faced kid manning the drive-thru booth will let me back in the building and make a beeline for Marty. “I’ve gotta get my sister.”
I should probably ask but, let’s face it; the guy’s running the graveyard shift at a third-rate burger joint, so how much say does he really have in anything? He raises his eyebrows.
“I’ll be right back,” I relent.
Dad is on the road. It happens more often than not, that I’m the one left to manage the aftermath. Far as I know he’ll head back as soon as he’s able, but it will still be tomorrow night before we see him. It’s just as well. Even when he’s here, it’s like he’s not. He hit the wall when I was seventeen, around the time I lost the inclination to care about schoolwork. It’s a miracle I graduated.
I wait in the driveway, engine running. I prop my elbow on the door and palm my forehead and think about all the things I should be doing right now. Like college. Dating. Friends. Mom has told me – has begged me – not to give up my own life in exchange for hers, but it’s easier said than done. And there’s so much I have to do, taking care of her, it’s doubtful she notices everything I’m not.
Liv emerges from the house, locks the door behind her. She drops into the car with a huff, and I immediately wrinkle my nose.
“What’s that smell?”
“I made a cake.”
“How?” I ask, shifting the car into reverse. Even if we never eat it, I understand why. Liv made a cake for the same reason I’m hauling her scrawny Betty Crocker ass back to Burger House with me. To delay the inevitable.
She quirks an eyebrow, but I stand by my question. No way in hell could I hope to make a cake now at nearly twenty, let alone at thirteen.
It’s another way in which we are achingly different and growing apart more by the day. We might live in the same house, but I don’t really know her. Mom first got sick when Liv was just seven, hardly even a person. We’d been closer then, even acted like sisters. We’re practically strangers now, affected and changed. Something inside shuts down in a life like this; it’s just easier that way. Our sisterhood was collateral damage of Mom’s illness. If I really try, I think I can imagine the woman Liv will eventually be, and I wonder if this fantasy woman is the kind of person I would be friends with, let alone stand to be around.
Probably not, I settle on, and the realization barely even stings. I’ve known for a while now that once it finally happens, we won’t fit into each other’s lives anymore. This prolonged limbo is the glue keeping us together.
Liv crosses her arms and slouches in the passenger seat, looking put-upon. Like she didn’t call begging for my company.
We’ve been through this song and dance so many times I’ve lost count. The worry and fear that follow the call look and sound different on each of us. For Liv, it’s perpetual annoyance. For Dad, it’s avoidance. And me? I’m just going through the motions.
Each time the phone rings, it could be the call, and I suppose I’m already steeling myself for it, solidifying the wall around my heart. Today, the panic, the fear, the worry – they’ve all been experienced in a rapid succession of brief but intense sensations, quickly replaced by the bleak, emotionless void I’ve been crafting inside.
I pull into a space at the back of the restaurant. Employees are supposed to park in the lot across the street, but I don’t give a shit, and no one here can be bothered to make me.
In the harsh fluorescent lighting, I can see now that Liv has been crying, and I’m forced to remind myself that, for all my jaded outlook on what I laughingly call my life, she’s just a kid. Too young still to train herself not to feel. And this is all the support I have to offer her: a break room the size of a closet with a dusty television that hasn’t worked in months.
She surveys the small space, which admittedly reeks of fryer oil and BO. “What am I supposed to do?”
Marty knocks on the door behind me, a quick rap that tells me my grace period is up. “I don’t know. Color or something.”
She blinks at me, and I roll my eyes. I check the time on the clock, its plastic cover fogged with atmospheric grease stains. There’s almost an hour left of my shift, and I don’t know what Liv wants from me. She has one of those child-lock phones that won’t let her do more than call and text and won’t keep her occupied. I tug my own cell free of my pocket, hand it over. “If you tweet from my account, I’ll shave your head in your sleep.”
Every time I walk through these sliding glass doors, I think, this is it. This is the day I will have finally grown immune to the smell. And every time, I’m wrong. There’s no hope of developing an immunity to this scent. This stinging, sterile odor.
Liv finally exhibits the adolescent clinginess that had her calling me at work, presses close to me as we move wordlessly through the lobby toward the bank of elevators. I punch the button, and it’s a silent ride to the fifth floor.
My gaze reflexively goes to the first clock we pass; twenty minutes before visiting hours resume. I steer Liv into the family waiting room around the corner. Gram is already here – or here still, since she’s the one who got Mom to the hospital at the first warning sign. She’s perched stiffly in an armchair, purse on her lap. A Styrofoam cup of coffee is on the table next to her elbow, and it looks full despite the lack of visible steam.
She clucks her tongue as we settle into a pair of uncomfortable chairs. “I wish you wouldn’t wear your hair like that, Kara,” she says by way of greeting. Gram wears her stress like a judgmental bitch.
I cut her some slack and don’t rise to the bait, just tuck a loose strand behind my ear.
This is the worst part; the waiting. But, really, that’s all we do. All I do. Wait. I turn to Liv, frown. “Do you have homework to do?”
Somehow, this surprises me. I chew my thumbnail, which is already gnawed down to a jagged stub, and I think, how the hell do I not even know what month it is? How is this my life?
The past six years, I’ve had to be selfless and practical, all the things a teenager isn’t meant to be. I’m over it. I’m not supposed to be, I’m not allowed to be, but I am. Sometimes I get caught up daydreaming of what life will be like when this is all over. And I feel…good. Calm.
And then, inevitably, I feel awful.
So, I push the daydreams aside, and remain hopeful. I have to, not just for Mom and Dad and Liv but for me, too. Without hope all I have is the sickening realization that my life won’t truly begin until hers ends.
At eight o’clock on the dot, Gram gives us a meaningful look before leaving the room, coffee forgotten. The silence left in her wake is deafening.
“We should go in,” I finally say, probably too loudly.
But neither of us moves. Something on Food Network drones low in the background as we relish these last few moments of freedom, before we enter the next stage of our cyclical routine.
What will I do, if this is it? If the doctor doesn’t have good news for us this time, and this is really it?
The nervous anticipation turns my stomach, and I swallow with difficulty. “Come on.” I stand, and Liv follows my lead.
Mom smiles when we enter the room, the sort of full-face grin that chips away at the carefully constructed wall around my heart, because she’s the strongest person I’ve ever known. She’s been waiting too, for us, knowing we’d be here as soon as we were permitted. She’s had a scare, but she’s stable, in good spirits, and should be released by tomorrow afternoon. It’s a relief and a burden at the same time. Dad will likely work out the remainder of his route now, leaving me to solo caretaking duties until the weekend.
She’s going to be fine. This time. But we all know we’ll be right back here in two weeks. A month. Three months.
And in the meantime, we’ll all strengthen our internal defense mechanisms, and we’ll all turn down the emotional dials another notch, and we’ll all retreat a little further into ourselves. And we’ll pretend that when we finally get the call, there won’t be a little bit of relief mingled in with the hurt.