Counting

For the first time in my life, I was running late for work.

This was a bad omen.

I blame my mother for my time-keeping obsession.  Since her watch ran seven minutes and twenty-three seconds slow, it was always difficult trying to get anywhere on time with her.  And once I discovered her inaptitude in time management, I tried ever so desperately to get her to set it to the right time. But she never listened to me. So I was always late.  To soccer practice, piano lessons, even school.  I was late to my middle school graduation because my mom swore we had enough time to go to the closest Dunkin Donuts and grab a quick coffee.

Constantly having to wait for her outside the car created my habit of counting to a certain number. It helped alleviate the anxiety my seven-year-old self was holding.  Now no matter what, I make sure I am at least 10 minutes early.

On that day as I sped off to work, I realized my phone vibrating in the cup holder. It was my mother. Probably asking me where I was since we both worked at the same doctor’s office and I wasn’t already at my desk scanning paperwork.  I picked up the phone at the next red light.

“Mom, somehow I lost track of time. Can you tell Lucy I am going to be 10 minutes late?”

“I already talked to Lucy. You’re not going to work today.”  Her voice was calm, but straining.  Something was happening.

“What’s wrong?”

“He’s having complications. You need to come to the hospital now.”

*

“What’s going on with Alma this semester? She’s… not herself.”

“I don’t know, man. I haven’t seen her in weeks.”

“Why wouldn’t she come over to hang out with us?”

Dean shrugs his shoulders at Matt not having an answer.  It wasn’t like Alma to not come over and visit the guys.  Dean and Matt have been best friends since joining Rho Mu Chi their freshman year of college.  It’s also how they met Alma. They instantly liked her. She was cute, funny, and she didn’t bitch too much about boring girl things.  She liked talking about sports, smoking hookah, and she was always a clutch beer pong partner.  But so far this year, Alma has been MIA.  She missed rush. She missed the toga party. She missed Pledge Dance. “It was Lonely Island themed! She would have loved my Dick in a Box costume and had a slice of I Just Had Sex cake,” Matt whines.

While Dean and Matt question their friend’s absence, Soren silently appears outside. Ever since coming back to school, Soren has been more like a phantom than a person.  His presence was missing.  He was naturally funny and an all-around favorite with the brothers. But since summer vacation, it was like a switch had been flipped.  All of the brothers were able to see the change in him. Slim even had to tell Soren to stay in his room for rush events since moping wasn’t going to help bring more brothers in.  Soren solemnly agreed.

Since Soren is best friends with Alma, and Alma had not been around lately, everyone just assumed they had had a fight.  But whenever those two fought with each other, it never lasted long.  They were hugging and sharing a cigarette like old chums five minutes later. Soren pulls out his pack of Marlboro lites and brings a cigarette to his lips.  Dean and Matt walk over to Soren and bum a smoke off him.

“All I’m saying,” says Dean in between drags, “is that this is total bullshit.  We’ve been friends with Alma for a long time. And now it’s our last year of college and she isn’t around.  What’s the deal?”

Matt grunts in agreement. “Maybe she just doesn’t care about us anymore.”

Dean and Matt were two great kids, but they had attempted to crush one too many beer cans against their foreheads. Their discussion over Alma was proof of this.

“That can’t be it though,” Dean points out.  “We haven’t done anything that bad to her lately.”

“Well, not counting when we duct taped all the things in her purse on the kitchen ceiling. Other than that, you’re right.”

“Then what the hell? What’s her issue with us?”

Listening to Dean and Matt’s rambling became too much for Soren.  He couldn’t handle it anymore.  “Maybe it has nothing to do with you guys,” Soren snaps.  “Maybe it’s about her.”

Matt and Dean stare at Soren for his outburst.

“Maybe she’s PMS’ing,” suggests Matt.  Dean nods his head in agreement.

“Idiots,” mutters Soren. He snubs out his cigarette, opens the front door and slams it shut.

*

Owen and I drove home in silence. We had just left our grandmother’s house, saying goodbye to our Uncle John and his daughter Naomi since they were flying back to Miami the next morning.  I looked over at Owen to see him crying.

“What’s wrong?”

With the heel of his hand, Owen wiped away the tears running down his cheek.  “I’m going to miss Uncle John.”

“Why?” I tried to play dumb, as if I didn’t know what he was really thinking.  “He’s coming down for Thanksgiving.  We’ll see him soon.”

“Cut the shit, Alma. I’m going to die.”

I pulled the car over to the side of the road.  I killed the engine and counted to ten.

Ten was my safe number to count to.  It was not too long, not too short.

“Don’t talk like that, Owen.”

“What? It’s true! I may be sixteen, but I’m not stupid.”

We sat in silence for a few minutes.  The crickets outside filled the car with their chirping.

“You can’t talk like that. Ever since you were diagnosed, it’s like you’ve already given up.”  My voice caught, and the back of my throat burned with the sobs I was keeping in. “If you don’t fight, then it wins. You have to fight. You hear me?”

This was the first time since being diagnosed that I saw my little brother cry.  When they first told him, sitting at his sides like two bookends, he didn’t say anything.  Instead, he stood up and went into his room.  Our parents were worried.  So worried that they constantly asked me to force myself onto him.  “Make him talk about it, Alma,” they would urge. “He needs his sister.” Thankfully, it was him who brought it up.

“I’m scared, Alma. I’m scared it’s going to hurt.” When he turned to face me, his eyes were wide with fear.  This was too much for anybody to deal with, let alone a sixteen-year-old boy.  “I’m scared I’m not strong enough.”

His words lingered in the car like a poisonous gas.  I had to do my best to keep him safe.  “We can fight this together.  But you can’t throw in the towel yet.”

Owen grunted in agreement. “Okay,” he said.

There was nothing for Owen to be afraid of.  It was just another quick biopsy.  Nothing we had to worry about.  At least that’s what the doctors kept telling us.  The past month had been something none of us saw coming.  We went from going to the local pool to beat the heat to the city hospital for a quick CT scan.

It had started when Owen began to complain about stomachaches.  Since he was a growing teenager who only stopped eating to take a breath between bites, we thought nothing of it.  But when he consistently complained about his stomach, my mom finally gave in. She checked his stomach and realized that his liver was swollen.

We thought it was mono, pneumonia, or even just an infection causing the problems but all the tests were negative.  We finally had to go to an oncologist.  After the first biopsy, we had concluded that Owen indeed had cancer. Then it suddenly seemed that our entire family had gone to Yale medical school with my mother. “Lymph nodes,” “malignant,” and “heptocellular carcinoma” had become everyday words in our daily vocabulary.

Did you know that HCC accounts for less than 1% of children diagnosed with cancer each year? You begin to pick up statistics about something you knew nothing about the day before when things like this happen.

I was afraid. I couldn’t be around to see my brother so sick.  His skin began losing his tan hue from the summer sun and turned a pallid yellow.  He was disappearing in front of our eyes. Every day it seemed he lost more and more weight.  It was a miracle if we could get him to eat anything.  His stomach pain was unbearable to witness.  At night it was worse.  My dad had begun sleeping in Owen’s room while Owen slept with Mom.  I slept anywhere that wasn’t home.  I became a permanent fixture in Soren’s home.  I would alert my parents of my whereabouts but they didn’t seem to hear me. It was always when my mom was trying to get Owen to eat yogurt or my dad was helping Owen into the bathroom. They would just nod their heads and say, “Okay.”

This was just another day for us.

They would help Owen.

And I would disappear.

*

Soren walks up to apartment 304 and knocks.

A frazzled girl in leggings and a too big tee shirt answers the door.

“Soren, thank God you’re here.” Tanya, Alma’s roommate, looks exhausted.  “She’s on the balcony.”

“Thanks,” he says walking into the apartment.  Cutting through the living room and straight towards the balcony, Soren opens the sliding door and slips outside.  Sitting in a lawn chair is a pale, thin rendition of Alma.  Her usually bright brown eyes are sinking into her face and her irises look black.  Her hair is no longer deep chocolate brown but a flat, dull mud color.  She looks up at Soren and smiles, but it isn’t an Alma Smile. The corners of her mouth don’t go as high as they usually do when it’s a genuine grin.  She holds up a pack of smokes, revealing her thin wrists. It looks like she hasn’t eaten anything in weeks.

“You’re here just in time for lunch,” she mumbles.

“How long have you been out here, Alma?”

She shrugs nonchalantly and nods her head towards the overfilled ashtray.  “About that many cigarettes’ worth.”

Alma coughs a hard, barking cough and spits over the balcony.  Soren can’t help but look at her.  He can’t believe how she has changed over the last few months.  His best friend wasn’t around anymore.   It is as if the life in her was slowly being sucked away. Leaving behind a void. Soren had made sure he visited Alma often enough and he always ignored how terrible she looked.

But now it was almost impossible to ignore.

“Alma—”

“Don’t tell me what to do, Soren.”

“You have to leave this apartment.”

“I do.”

“You and I both know going to class doesn’t count.  Especially since you’re taking the minimum class requirements this semester.” Soren sits down in the chair next to Alma and takes a cigarette from her pack.  They both light their squares and for those brief few seconds, things are not as terrible as they truly are.  It’s like a normal day.  Alma isn’t shunning herself away from friends and ignoring her family’s calls. Soren is just as happy as he always is and they are just two friends sharing a cigarette.  But as quickly as those seconds come, they just as quickly leave.

“I left the apartment yesterday,” Alma exhales.
“Buying smokes doesn’t count either.”

“I just don’t see the point anymore.”

“The guys are asking about you,” Soren says.  They miss you.”

“I don’t care.”

“Alma, I can’t help you if you won’t help yourself.”

“Who says I want help? Everyone is trying to help me. Fix me.  Hold my hand.  Ask me how I feel. How the fuck do you think I feel, Soren?”

Soren takes a deep breath. He so desperately wishes he could be what she needs him to be right now.  But he doesn’t think that even Alma knows what she needs. His first goal in helping Alma is getting her off her balcony and away from a pack of cigarettes for at least fifteen minutes. “This weekend we are throwing a party at the house.  You are going.”

“No I’m—”

“I will pick you up at 9:30 and if you are still out here in those same clothes, I swear to God I am dragging you to the bathroom and making you take a shower.”

“I’m just going—”

“—To remember what it’s like to live a normal life for one night.”

*

I didn’t think hospital waiting rooms were built to have a maximum capacity of over eight people. But we were able to squeeze in twenty. I was playing Gin Rummy with my little cousins trying to keep them occupied.  Get their minds off the fact that we were in the ICU waiting room. It was helping me for a while too.

Owen was unconscious now. My parents were talking to the doctors about their options.

Aunt Reggie came to the door.

“Alma, a woman would like to talk to you in the hallway.”

Giving the kids a reassuring smile, I got up and walked outside. Waiting for me was a young woman of about twenty-five. She was wearing jeans, a sweater and an ID tag with her picture and name on it.  She has a large grin on her face.  It didn’t seem to register to her that she was outside the ICU of a children’s hospital.

“Hi!” she squeaked.

“Hello.”

“I just want to let you know that my name is Mary and I am a psychologist that works with the hospital.  I specialize in working with teens going through traumatic events. So, I hear your little brother is dying.”

I was taken aback by the bluntness of her statement.

“Uh, yeah.  I guess he is. I didn’t think about it like that.”

“And he’s your only sibling, correct?”

Where did this lady get her degree from? The University of Subtlety?

I gritted my teeth.  “That’s right.”

I looked right at her.  Just to get a real good look at her.  And there she was, still smiling like an idiot.  I counted to ten.

“So how is it that you feel that you are going to remember him?”

I couldn’t take it anymore. I got up to 4 and then I cracked.

“Are you fucking kidding me?  He isn’t even dead yet.  Can we wait until he dies before you start asking me this bullshit?”  I just let it all pour out.  All of the frustration of the past month and a half. All of the awkwardness within my own home.  Everything. On this poor, stupid woman. “Is this how you talk to all of your patients?  If this is a new mode of psychiatry let me just tell you now, it isn’t fucking working.”

“Do you want to go to a room somewhere so you can just cry your eyes out?”

“No, I don’t want to go to a room and cry my eyes out; I want to punch you in the mouth.”

She blinked at me.

“Well, I have these books here you might like.  You can have them. They’re good for grieving teenagers.”

She handed me two small books. The pictures on the front used the typical graphic art for a book on grief.  The first, The Worst Loss, had a picture of a little girl pouting with her head in her hands. The other book, Sibling Grief, had angels on the cover with a cartoon of a little boy with his mother.

“Thanks,” I said. “The table in the waiting room is a bit wobbly and I think these books will really help.”

I turned around and headed back to my family.

*

Alma is sitting in her living room watching the clock on the cable box.

Running her fingers through her freshly showered hair, she begins fidgeting.  Soren should be here in two minutes.  Since there really isn’t anything Alma could do to completely occupy her mind for such a short period of time, she begins to count to 120.

To help trick her mind into thinking time is going faster, Alma looks back and forth from the cable box clock to her cell phone.  This time it isn’t working.  Instead, she looks at her cell phone and sees a text from her mom.  Exhaling deeply, Alma opens the text.  Might as well get it over with, she thinks.  Looking down at the screen she sees five simple words:

I love you.  Call me.

Ignoring the text, Alma goes back to her counting.  121… 122… 123. Where is Soren? …124…125. Alma begins squirming in her seat.  …126… He should be here by now.

Knock, knock, knock.

Alma jumps off the couch and unbolts the door.  Opening the door reveals Soren with a smile on his face.

“You showered.”

“Shut up,” Alma grins while slightly pushing Soren in the shoulder.  “You’re late.”

Soren looks at his phone. “It’s 9:32.”

“I was worried.”

“I’m fine,” Soren smiles.

Another short moment of normalcy passes between the two friends.  Forgetting about the text message from her mom, Alma realizes tonight might not be as terrible as she is afraid it will be.  She takes a look at Soren.  He looks good.   With his long frame, a pair of dark grey chords and a graphic tee with a flannel button-up is quirky but cute.  His shaggy blond hair is in desperate need for a cut since it’s starting to curl at the end. His blue eyes are slowly regaining the sparkle they once held.

“Okay, let’s get this over with,” Alma says, taking Soren’s hand and walking outside the front door.

*

I ran into the ICU once we had reached the hospital.  Aunt Reggie filled me in with how things went with Owen on the way over. They did the biopsy and the cancer had spread from his liver to his small intestine.  A partial transplant was deemed impossible. After the surgery, however, the doctors didn’t know if it was the shifting around of his organs or if it was the cancer but Owen’s kidneys were slowly shutting down.

They were pumping him up with morphine so he wouldn’t feel any pain and my aunt warned me that Owen might not be as coherent.  They were waiting for me to get to the hospital to see him conscious and afterwards they would administer a breathing tube since more of his organs were shutting down. I found Owen surrounded by nurses and family.

He didn’t look like my brother.  His eyes were unable to focus and his skin was paler than it had ever been.  He had an oxygen mask over his face and he kept trying to take it off.  The nurses kept telling Owen to keep the mask on.

“But Alma is here. I need to give her a kiss,” he cheerfully stated.

He looked over at me as tears ran down my face.

“Alma, why are you crying?”

I wiped my face quickly and smiled.

“I’m not crying, Owen.”

“Yes you are.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Hey,” he said. “Come here.”  He waved his hand at me and I leaned forward. “I hate you,” he smiled.

Slap.

My little brother had slapped me for arguing with him at the ICU.  We both laughed and he leaned forward to kiss my cheek.  The hotness of the slap and the coolness of the kiss made my cheek tingle.  He was taking deep breaths and lying back between every few words.  It was like he was counting to ten.

“I love you, Alma.” 1…2…3…  “I want to take,” 4…5… “A nap now.” 6… 7…“I can see someone.” 8…9… “It’s Grandpa!”

Our grandpa died when Owen was two.

“Well then go say hello,” I said.

He nodded his head and closed his eyes.

My cheek still tingled throughout the night.

10.

*

Soren and Alma reach the front door of the Rho Mu Chi fraternity.  Reaching out to open the door, Alma hesitates.  She becomes anxious and regrets allowing Soren to talk her into coming here. She wasn’t ready to leave her comfort zone. She had spent all the end of summer putting up her walls and knocking them down in one night made it seem not worth it.

Alma’s face blanches more than usual and she looks up at Soren.

He can easily see the fear in his best friend’s eyes and realizes this is his time to comfort her. Now he can be what she needs him to be.

“You don’t have to spill your guts about everything that happened last summer tonight. Just try to get back into the swing of things.” Soren looks down at Alma.  He notices this wasn’t enough to calm her down.  Soren knows what he needs to tell her.  “Your brother loves you, you know?  He told me every time I came to pick you up from your house.”

Alma blinks back tears. She never knew Owen and Soren spoke to each other when she was running to her room to collect her things. But it didn’t surprise her. They weren’t going to stare at each other in silence.  They had to speak in passing for a little bit.

Turning what Soren has just shared with her, she realizes something important.  Though Owen couldn’t count on her in the middle of his illness, he was able to count on her when he really needed her most. Owen had forgiven her, so she should be able to too.

Thinking about the text from her mom, Alma swears to call her back tomorrow.

Alma nods her head and reaches out for Soren’s fingers.  She thinks about Owen and how happy he was to see her those last few minutes he was conscious. She knew that her baby brother loved her.

“I can do this,” she says.

“It’s just like any other day.”

They open the door together and when they step inside, Alma is greeted with shouts and hollers.

Not once that night did she count to ten.

 

*This was a piece I worked on in undergrad and thought I should share it.  It is what I based (days since) on and what got me into grad school.  It’s really clunky, but I still thought it would be nice to share.

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