Showing That I love You: A Flash Fiction Story
My older sister Claudia has stage 4 leukemia.
At St. Mary’s hospital, visitors seldom came into the patient’s rooms. Most of the visitors sat rigidly in the wooden chairs with light green cushions, checking their emails, newsfeed, or texts on their Androids or iPhones. Some visitors clung to the snack and soda vending machines, as though they were overworked employees crowding an office water cooler. And then there were the few visitors who chain-smoked cigarettes out on the smoking section, a faded red brick patio covered with cicada shells and bird droppings.
The doctors wore spotty white coats and always carried a handkerchief in their breast pocket, to wipe away the sweat from their perspiring heads. Then there were the nurses: young and good-looking, buxom, and clothed in baby blue, cool pink, or grayish-purple smocks. The nurses checked their phones constantly, as though they were always making plans, to be somewhere, anywhere, then where they were at the current moment.
The receptionists and the security guards seemed to always do their best to smile big and wide for the deathly-ill children who rolled around in squeaky and wobbly wheelchairs, across the speckled floors of the lobby and the hallways and the small gym. They gave the children caramel green apple lollipops and the adults the password for the WiFi.
They gave me updates on Claudia: At lunchtime, she was eating the mashed potatoes and the glazed ham. She doesn’t like watching MMA, or the Tennis Channel, but she’s an avid follower of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. This morning, she walked with a cane for an hour before she slept for the whole day. She likes to crank the volume on the boom box in the community rec room, usually playing loud Hip-Hop, or classical cello. Claudia didn’t speak to anybody today.
She was 25 years old and I was 20 years old. And I didn’t know how to talk to her.
“When can I leave?” Claudia asked me, as she flipped the channels on the TV from Adult Swim to an HBO Documentary on Jesus Camp.
“Soon,” I said. I was cradling a mason jar filled with iced coffee and focused on the snowflakes falling gently onto the windowsill. I took a sip, tolerated the bitterness of coffee, and sighed.
Claudia rolled her eyes.
“What?” I asked.
"You don't care about my feelings," Claudia said, tossing the remote control to the left side of the hospital bed.
"That's false," I said, crossing my arms over my chest. The snowflakes continued to fall. The window was slightly opened, barely an inch, and only ajar because Claudia had wanted it that way. I shut the window, turned and looked at Claudia and said, "Dude, you're my sister. I love you. And I’ll always care about you."
"I hate this place. Can't believe I might actually die here."
"Don't say that."
"It's true, isn't it? I could die here. I haven't been home in months. As far as I know, this is pretty much my home. My coffin. My burial grounds. My cemetery. Maybe I’m being overdramatic. But I can’t help how I feel right now."
I was unsure of how to comfort and relieve Claudia’s fears and anxieties. I didn’t know what to fucking to do at all. She was dying. And my words could not relieve her of her pain. This real fact, crushed me.
I reached over, hugging her tightly. Claudia took in a deep breath and began to cry uncontrollably, as the light snow grew heavier and fell at a more rapid pace. She looked a bit scared and fragile, as I let go of her trembling body. Her face screwed up with worry and resentment and fatigue, all these emotions I never really associated with my older sister. She was usually so cheerful and outgoing. I wanted to rescue her from this sickness and hoped she would be okay, but there wasn’t any solution that came to mind.
And this shattered me inside.
For lunch, we ate tuna melt sandwiches and sweet potato fries in the cafeteria and drank iced dirty chais. Afterwards, we put on our winter coats and took a walk in the front courtyard through the sludge and the snow, black ice building up on the sides of the walkway, but we didn’t care so much about it. Cold weather never bothered me, but today it seemed to exhaust me. Claudia loved this kind of weather, even more so than warmth.
We'd been staying in Fairfax, a small and affluent suburb in Northern Virginia for the past 9 years. We knew the neighborhoods, the strip malls, the coffee shops, the baseball diamonds, and the forest trails. Originally, Claudia and I were from Chicago, but we'd left when I was 6 and she was 8. Our parents craved a better and more peaceful life for us, and they found a slice of it, carved deep in the lush green forests of Virginia. They were escaping their industrial and secretarial jobs, and the intense and scrupulous nature of the city, how it could swallow you up at a moment's notice, and corrode your bones into granulated bits.
"Give me a smoke," Claudia said, poking me in the shoulder.
I shook my head and laughed. "I didn't know you smoke," I said.
"I don't," she laughed. "But I could go for a cigarette. So, can I bum a jack, or what?"
“No, you can’t.”
“Why the fuck not?”
“Because I don’t want you to smoke, that’s why the fuck not.”
“You’re a hypocrite.”
“I’m your brother.”
“Correction, you’re my baby brother. And you’re pissing me off. And if you keep pissing me off, I’d like you to leave.”
I cleared my throat and muttered: fuck.
I pulled out my dark green vape, pulled on it, and blew out smoke. "If you’re going to smoke. Try this, instead," I said.
"Yeah, it doesn't give you the harshness of a cigarette, but it has nicotine. I really shouldn’t be letting you try this.”
Claudia chuckled. “I won’t tell anyone.”
“If mom or dad finds out, I’m dead.”
Claudia grabbed the vape from my hand and smoked it. “Lucky for you, I’ll probably be gone before you.”
My heart dropped.
I didn’t know what to do, so I stayed silent. I shouldn’t have said: ‘I’m dead.’ It was careless and wrong of me to say that. I didn’t mean to speak like an ignorant fool. I didn’t want Claudia to think I was not cognizant of her disease, and what it was doing to her.
She let a deep smoky breath and giggled. "This is nice. hanging out with you. I don't know how many more times, we'll get to…you know spend time," Claudia said, passing back the vape. The horizon opened up with sunlight, the snow finishing its descent onto the lopsided ground.
"Hey, you're my blood. I’m here for you," I said, trying hard not to cry. My eyes started to water with tears, but I was doing my best to hold back my emotions. I didn’t want to show vulnerability, I had to show strength for Claudia.
I looked at the ground covered by a blanket of snow and continued to puff on the vape.
“Hey don’t cry, you’re going to make me cry,” Claudia said, wiping my tears away.
I nodded and blew snot into my shirtsleeve. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to.”
“Crying’s good, though.”
“I concur,” I said.
“What’d I do now?”
“You and your SAT words.”
“That’s at least HS level.”
“HS IB program…nerd.”
Claudia hugged me, pulled in closer, and rubbed her knuckles against my head.
“What are you doing?” I yelped
“Showing that I love you.”
I cried again.
Claudia and I didn't talk for a minute. Instead, we held each other in the cold, the weather growing stronger and brisker, in the courtyard, as the sun bled out its golden light.