The C Word
Disclaimer: Not what you think
I knock once, twice, a third time, then enter. I had already begun my apology before the door was fully open. I step into the room, and pause.
I had expected to see my sister Emma crying in her bed, knees hugged to her chest, a mass of mascara-stained tissues covering her knees and stomach like a blanket.
The bed is made, and clean. Teddies carefully arranged around her pillow and cushions. No sign of Emma.
The blind rattles against the window. It’s storming outside.
All of her wigs are still on her desk, on the mannequins. Ten different lengths, styles, colours. Last night, before we went out, she had gazed at each one, frowning, considering, before finally reaching for one. “Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be…”
The wind howls. One of the mannequins rocks, then topples over, and sends the whole lot down like dominoes.
I run to the window and fasten it shut. The room is silent and still. Bald faceless heads roll about on the floor.
I bend down, and stroke one of the wigs. The blonde one, her favourite. It’s incredibly soft and smooth. Made from real human hair. I had told her, after she had come home wearing it a month ago, that it made her look like Marilyn Monroe.
She had said, “That’s why I chose it. To feel beautiful for once.” I had told her she was beautiful, because she was. I was the plain one, she was the pretty one, even with the hair loss. She hadn’t replied, just stared at her reflection, and I could tell she didn’t believe me.
Emma’s cancer changed everything. We had always been close, until she got her diagnosis then, day by day, she drifted away from me. She cut herself off, shut herself away, stopped laughing, almost stopped speaking. She only ever uttered a word when I asked her a direct question. Even when we were physically close, sat next to each other, I could feel the void between us: an invisible wall that I haven’t been able to break, whatever I say, whatever I do. The wall is her cancer; it pushed us further and further away from each other, and all we do now is argue. She lashes out, because she’s hurting. But I’m hurting too. We all are.
Mum wanders around the house as if she’s in a daze; her tired, sunken eyes always holding a question: why did this have to happen to us? Dad is mostly silent these days. In the mornings, he downs a cup of coffee then runs off to work, away from it all, and doesn’t come back until late. A fissure has opened up between our parents; at first they huddled together in their grief, clutching onto that spark of hope we all had when Emma started chemotherapy. Hope that she would get better. But she didn’t, she got worse and, finally, they fell apart. They avoid each other. We all avoid each other, barely speak to one another. Our house has become a silent prison. There is only one thing we want, need, to talk about: cancer. But Emma has banned us from talking about it, even uttering the word, the dreaded C word, as if it would go away if we all just ignored its existence.
It’s a terrible thing to admit but, sometimes, I hate my sister. Our whole family is falling apart, but she can’t see past herself and her pain, won’t accept that she’s not the only one affected by her cancer; it’s destroying us all. The family has rallied around her. Uncles and aunts and cousins who hadn’t bothered to visit us in ten years suddenly starting popping up out of the blue as soon as Emma was diagnosed. And while they’re all so focused on looking after her, I’m pushed to the sidelines and ignored, lost in Emma’s shadow. Nobody has any interest in looking after me.
I pick up the wig. There’s a piece of paper underneath. The edge is ragged, torn carelessly from a notebook. I pick it up and turn it over. Stencilled images of Winnie the Pooh and Piglet adorn the header. It had to be from Emma’s notebook, but that wasn’t her handwriting. Not her usual neat, individually printed small letters. This was a barely legible scribble.
I read it quickly. The blind casts shadows across the paper, almost blotting out some of the lines, while others are brought into sharp relief, highlighted by the moon.
I wish I could describe the feeling of knowing that you’re going to die. Knowing you’re against the clock. That every second counts. The pressure of knowing that I waste precious minutes, and the guilt that comes with it… and even more guilt that I look at everyone around me wasting their time, their lives, and wishing I had the luxury to just be a normal girl. I have cancer, and I just have to pray that my chemo works. I don’t even believe in God, but there is nothing else I can do. No matter how loud I scream or how hard I fight, there is nothing I can do but hope and pray. And it isn’t working. I feel helpless, useless… I am tired of living like this. This half-life. I’m tired of vomiting, of being too sick to get out of bed. I hate looking in the mirror and not recognising myself. I used to be pretty. Now all my hair is gone and I look ill all the time and I can’t do the things I want to do. Everyone tells me to keep on fighting, but who is it for? Them, or me? Because I don’t want to fight any more. I’m too tired. I’m dying, and I’m sick of waiting. I want it to be over. I’m sorry to my family and friends, I am truly sorry, but I hope you understand that I need to find peace. Emma.
The letter falls from my hand, flutters to the floor. For a moment I am frozen. Is this my fault?
I wish you were gone, I had said, but I didn’t mean it. We had argued over a boy. She liked him, but he liked me. The problem was I liked him too. Emma had asked me not to take his phone number; she couldn’t deal with any more hurt, any more disappointment. But I’d grown sick of planning my life around my sister, constantly walking on eggshells, always putting her miles before myself. So I snapped.
I call Emma. My hands shake so violently that I nearly drop the phone. It keeps on ringing and then I hear it, a vibration coming from somewhere in the room. I follow the noise, and find her phone in a handbag. I feel cold all over. Emma never leaves the house without her phone. She has been glued to it for the last year, always ‘talking’ to her new friends online. The only people who understand what she’s going through, she says, though I’ve tried and tried.
I call the police and report her missing. We argue over whether she’s really missing. She left a suicide note. I think it is. She has cancer. I don’t know where she might have gone. No, she left her phone and keys here. She’s not coming back.
The woman on the phone says she’ll send officers out to look for her, and one to our house to talk to me, but I can’t wait that long. I hang up, stuff my phone into my pocket, and run out the house. I’m already two streets away and soaked to the skin before I realise I’ve forgotten my coat.
I run down the streets screaming her name, feet slapping on the pavement, sending splashes of icy cold water straight up my legs. The rain is so heavy that I can barely see. My throat burns, my legs ache, my hands and feet are numb and I’m shivering so much that my teeth are chattering. It feels hopeless, futile, but I’m not ready to lose my sister. Not yet. So I keep on going.
A light flashes red in front of me. At first I think it’s a torch, then I recognise the rail crossing. The barrier is down for an approaching train. I’m squinting in the rain, and a flash of movement draws my eye. Emma. Climbing over the barrier.
I run over, shouting. She can’t hear me, or ignores me, and climbs over the barrier.
I follow her and drop down beside her. “What are you doing?” I scream at her.
She jumps and stares at me, then a roar and a piercing white light splits the night. I grab her and cling to both her and the barrier. The air tugs at me, trying to pull me back as the train rushes past, horn blaring. The sound is deafening. For a split second, I think we are both going to die.
My ears are ringing. I look to Emma and see her hands are on the barrier, gripping so tightly her knuckles have turned white. And there it is: a spark of hope. She could have let go.
I watch the lights on the train fade to pinpricks, swallowed by the night. Emma falls to her knees, and I collapse beside her. We hug for the first time in months and cry together, grateful to be alive.
An hour later, we are sat at the kitchen table in dry clothes with steaming mugs of tea. Two police officers are talking to our parents. The door is shut. We can only hear whispers of words, and we’ve stopped trying to work them out.
Emma glances at me, eyes wide and sad. “Am I in trouble?”
“No. They just want to help you. We all do.”
“I’m going to die, Sarah.” She says it like she believes it. I don’t know what to say, because despite years of hoping and wishing, I think I believe it too.
“You don’t know that.”
She reaches for my hand, clasps it tight. “I’m scared.”
“Me too.” I can’t imagine my life without my sister in it. I don’t even want to try. “But you have to keep on fighting.”
Emma looks down at the table. “I’m so tired.”
“But I would miss you. So would mum and dad. Everyone would miss you.” My eyes fill with tears, and I blink them back. A reflex action. We have all had years of training in being strong for Emma. “What if you get better? You can’t rule out that chance. You can’t lose hope.”
She nods slowly, and I see something in her eyes. Something that hasn’t been there for over a year. A spark. Hope.
It’s a while before either of us speak again. We just sit there holding hands.
Emma shivers suddenly. “I have to do something,” she declares. “I can’t sit here any longer.”
“What do you want to do?”
She smiles. “Waste some time.”
23/3/2019 10:46:48 pm
It’s a good read George. I think you describe well what many people must go through. The ending is particularly good And tells us that there is hope.
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Georgie Bull is a freelance writer and published author living in Worcester, England.
Author: Georgie Bull
1. You Can Go Home Again
2. A Beautiful Dream
5. Let Me Tell You A Story
6. The Haunting Of Verno House
7. The C Word
8. A Ghost Story
9. Father's Son
10. Time (poem)
11. Poems - Unheard and Silent Musician
12. The Ultimate Dystopia - part one
13. The Ultimate Dystopia - part two
1. The Desert - Peregrin Jones
2. The Being Verse - Peregrin Jones
3. Who Will Feel The Rain Now? - Leena Batchelor
The Blue Hour by Dreena Collins
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