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I taught myself to read from old Reader’s Digests in Grandma’s house, where we came whenever things got bad at home. Sometimes, I didn’t know we’d left until I woke up in the back seat, bundled in my bedspread. We didn’t always get away clean. The story you liked to tell was that time you gave Daddy four flat tires, how you yelled out the window, Eat tacks, sucker!
The other times, nights you’d send me into a 7-Eleven for cups of ice to hold to your cheek: those never made it into your stories.
At Grandma’s the coffee pot was going, night or day, because the women in our family knew coffee was crisis fuel, not to be wasted on breakfast only. I’d be left alone in the den with board games and no one to play with while upstairs I’d hear voices raised or, more ominously, hushed. Grandma’s, yours, Aunt Netta’s. I’d already learned it was better not to listen. I disappeared myself into stacks of manila-colored magazines, pages wavy from damp, redolent of mildew, full of hero dogs, and miracle rescues, and talking organs. I Am Joe’s Undescended Testicle. I am Jane’s Parasitic Twin.
In one story I read over and over, a woman crashed her car. Most of her face was left behind in the snow where she landed after being thrown through the windshield. Her husband came to visit her in the hospital. He stood beside her bed, looked at her once, and walked away.
How selfish that husband was, I thought then. How shallow.
It’s strange how I keep thinking of that story now—about the woman waking up in the bloody snow, hearing people whisper: Is it alive? But she was only broken on the outside.
When I saw you in the ICU I was sure they’d messed up somehow, sent the wrong message. Or you’d conned Grandma into setting up some fake deathbed reunion. I’d say, I forgive you, and you’d wake up, a miracle, and we’d all cry. Lifetime movie tears would slide down our faces like raindrops, leaving no trace of red eyes or runny mascara.
You’d better come now if you want to say goodbye, is what Grandma said. But you can’t be dying. Can’t be brain dead, like they said. Your face is perfect. The tiny wrinkles around your mouth are gone. Even the two vertical lines in your forehead, the ones that get deeper when you’re thinking. Everything’s smoothed over—risen again like a loaf of day-old bread baptized with water and put back in the oven to warm.
I think of you, carrying sleeping me down the stairs. Of you putting yourself between me and his fists. And then when it changed. You didn’t read the signs. Didn’t ask why I bought a lock for my door, why I wore baggy sweatshirts even in summer. Why did you stop fighting for me?
Maybe I should have known. You’d already stopped fighting for yourself. He held you harder than heroin. He was the other drug you couldn’t quit.
Once, I woke up scared in the back of the car. You said we were going on an adventure. Instead of going straight to Grandma’s you drove to a rocky cove. We both ran barefoot into the water. Look down, you said. Tiny, silver-shiny fish danced around our feet. They rode the waves, a phosphorescent cloud.
You say I yelled Glow necklace! I don’t remember saying anything. I remember the tickling fish, the lapping waves, your hand holding mine.
And now I’m holding yours. It feels inflatable, puffy, and limp.
You’re already gone, they tell me. Flat lines on graph paper. I wait for you to tell me something different. Once, words were only lines on pages. Then they were everything. I watch you, reading your face, waiting for the words to come clear. For the miracle on the last page.