People aren't supposed to have a favorite sister. I did.
"Hold your breath, Ellie, here comes a tunnel!" Kat shrieked.
I obliged. I thought I would die before we emerged into the sunlight. I laughed as we both sucked down doses of air. The light and the oxygen were painful after the dark of the tunnel.
"Did you make a wish?" she asked, bouncing in her seat.
"Yeah." I smiled at her. "It was a really good one."
"Well, don't tell me, because then it won't come true."
I would never never never utter it.
I've heard AIDS called the divine disease by certain narrow-minded people. The gay man disease, the junkie disease, the whore disease. She should have been safer than anyone, then. She was a good kid, and she didn't take risks. She only ever had one boyfriend, when she was 14 and I was 18, and that lasted two weeks before she broke it off.
"I don't get it, Kat. Boys don't get any more perfect than Jeremy."
"He wasn't the right one." Eyes down, hands in pockets.
"You're 14, for god sakes. It's not like you're looking for your soul mate."
"He was a guy." The way she said it—there was something, but I couldn't quite seize it.
"Well yeah. What, so he wanted sex or something?"
She shook her head, back and forth like a pendulum, tapping out metronomic No's.
Deep breath, a clock winding up. "He's not a girl."
We didn't live in the Brooklyn projects or the Jersey slums where the word virgin is an obscenity, where boys join rabble gangs before they can write in cursive and girls shoot up every weekend after getting raped by their dads. You expect diseases there. It makes prejudices easy to perpetuate. There, death is tragic, but at the same time it's expected. You can read a thousand stories about the calamities of the slums, feel a transitory anguish and compassion, and then move on. There will always be another story, another tick of the clock.
We lived in the suburbs of Seattle. Rich neighborhood, high-end schools, expensive cars. We had a mother, a father, a dog, and a Kat.
When I was five, and Kat was just learning how to walk, our dad got sick. I don't remember him much, and Kat doesn't remember him at all. He was sick, and then he was better, and then he was sick again. For two years. We only found out later that it wasn't just pneumonia he died of.
Mom cried for days.
For a long time, I thought the only reason Mom cried so much was because Dad had died.
"Monet, when will Daddy come home from the hospital?" I asked. Monet was 10, and she knew everything.
"Dad's not coming home, Ellie. He's talkin' to God."
"Why's Mama sad, then? Daddy talks to God every Sunday in church."
That was the first time Monet couldn't answer me.
Mom started going to the doctor a lot. Monet, Kat, and I were dragged along and dumped in the waiting room. Sarah, the receptionist, always smiled and let us each choose a lollipop. She seemed a little sadder every time we came, and I remember wondering why she smiled all the time anyway.
Kat always picked the apple lollipop.
The baby was born in April.
Grandma was there, and all three of my aunts. Uncle Jack was there, too, but he mostly just watched football on TV. Monet, with her long grasshopper legs coiled together, sat on his lap.
"What's that you're giving her now?" Aunt Annie demanded. She didn't trust the nurses.
"Just a medication she needs for the baby to be healthy."
"They didn't give me anything like that when I was in labor. Why does she need that?"
"An ultrasound showed that one of the baby's kidneys might be abnormal."
"So this… zidovudine… will help the baby's kidney?"
"It's just a medication the doctor recommended."
I woke up when the baby, screaming, was being toweled down by the nurses.
"She's darling, Sophia! You will breastfeed, of course."
"I can't yet, Annie. The pediatrician has to run some tests first. To make sure Mara's kidney is okay."
Mom couldn't tell anyone. Not even her daughters. She needed us to believe that Dad had been just as righteous as he had preached he was. We changed churches when he died, and I didn't know why. Everyone had loved us at Dad's church. Old ladies, ruffled like gaudy magpies, had told me every Sunday how lucky I was to have Pastor Paul for a daddy. At the new church, no one knew our names.
After Mara was born, we didn't have to sit in the waiting room with Sarah smiling at us like the world might end. Mom took us in with her. The room was all white, with posters about chicken pox and car seats tacked to the walls. Monet made faces in the mirror and Kat and I looked at the pictures in a book about a tree and a boy.
"Is she—?" Mom asked. Mara, cocooned in blankets, yawned in her arms.
She deflated in relief.
Mom rocked her head in protest. "No no no no no no no…"
"I'm so sorry, Mrs. Penning."
We played tea parties under the apple tree. Monet usually ended up kicking a soccer ball through the spread and ruining it. She didn't want to drink imaginary tea or play dress-up. She wanted to play soccer. We refused. She won every time, even when Kat and I played two-on-one.
It always ended when Kat had to go inside and take her medicine. She was four, and she didn't like it. For every time she swallowed the pill without crying, Mom awarded her an apple lollipop. There was a little paper temple of green-and-white wrappers every week in the trash can.
"Be nice to Kat. She's sick."
"She doesn't seem sick."
"I know, honey, but she is." Then Mom ran off to see why Mara was wailing.
"God, don't you know anything, Ellie?" Monet said.
"Look." She drew two lines with a green crayon on the tummy of a color-me-happy teddy bear in my color-in book. I only had to glance.
"It's a cross."
"No it's not, idiot."
"Yeah it is, you just made it too short. It's a cross like Jesus's."
"It means positive. The doctor is positive that Kat is sick."
I never threw away the Teddy Bear Picnic coloring book. Even when I was 11, 13, 17, I would unlock the wrinkled, stained pages when no one else was around and stare at that little green plus sign.
Some people live for a long time with HIV. Some people don't. Dad didn't. Mom did.
"Do you remember Dad?" Monet asked me when she was 18.
"Only a little."
"You were only like six when he died, huh?"
"No, seven. I'd just turned seven. That was the year I didn't have a birthday party, because Dad died a month later."
"Oh. Well." Beneath her mouth, the clockwork components of a decision turned together. "I think Dad was unhappy."
"He had AIDS, Mo, of course he was unhappy."
"No, I mean before he started getting sick." She was trying to circumvent her point in that irritating way she had.
"Just spit it out."
Deep breath. "I think he got sick because he was unhappy," she said in a rush, like words tumbling faster and faster off a precipice, hurtling down to some tragic end. The impact was silence.
Kat diligently took her regimen every day of middle school. She didn't need the apple lollipop bribe any more.
She didn't tell any of her friends that she had HIV.
Giggling or crying, she unwrapped all her little secrets when it was just the two of us together under the blankets of my bed. She knew there was a monster chained to a time bomb asleep in her veins, and it made her cautious. She tiptoed through childhood and adolescence. Do not wake the beast! I hugged her close and tried not to think about how much I loved her.
"I'm going to the AIDS Walk downtown tomorrow, Devin. Wanna come?"
Devin, my boyfriend of two years, stretched languidly and changed the channel. "Nah. AIDS really isn't that big of a problem. I mean, who cares about Africa anyway? It's a third world country, people die of all sorts of stuff."
"It's a global pandemic, Dev. People in the U.S. have AIDS too."
"Yeah, like hookers and junkies and stupid people. Hey, Seinfeld is on."
I broke up with him the next day.
Every time Kat got a cold, I clung to her, terrified that the end was beginning. She would drink eight or nine tall glasses of apple juice and be back out of bed in a few days, and I would draw the curtains and breathe again.
Mom and Kat drove to the doctor's every few months, while I stayed and carried Mara around. Monet was usually off at sports practice, punishing soccer balls for all worldly injustices. Mom and Kat would return home with statistics in their mouths, CD4 counts and viral load numbers.
"I want to graduate from high school," Kat told me on her first day of freshman year.
"And I want the chance to fall in love."
She brought home her first girlfriend on a day marked by its bipolar weather. They kicked off their boots in the hall as the sun emerged to throw bolts through the slow-motion rain. The light refracted, but I was the only one who noticed the evanescent spectrum.
They giggled and held hands and taught Mara how to fold origami cranes. They shared an apple lollipop, and I couldn't choose between happiness and sadness; I settled on just watching.
The sky was too wrapped up in itself to notice when Holly left. As she opened the door, Kat caught her hand and gave her a shy kiss. Holly whispered words that may have been "I think I might love you," then departed into the darkening afternoon.
"You haven't told her, have you?"
"I can't, Ellie. Oh, don't give me that look. I've tried. God, I've tried. But she isn't ready to hear it."
I moved into a dorm room at a college in Northern California. It was a long way from home, and for the first two weeks I called home every day just to hear Kat's voice. Every day turned in to every two days, then once a week, then a few times a month.
It was March of my junior year. I was in the midst of finals and an arduous romance. It had been almost three months since I had found the time to talk to Kat aside from the occasional brief, courteous check-ins.
"Ellen Penning? This is St. Samuel's Hospital, calling on behalf of your sister Katlyn."
I drove straight through the night, stopping only to fill the car's tank and to empty my own. Time dragged itself forward so slowly I kept thinking the clock on my dash was faulty. I didn't know it was possible to spend 14 hours behind the wheel in one shot, but when you're desperate enough, no amount of driving is impossible.
I missed two of my final exams. For the first time, I didn't care.
"I just… didn't want you to worry about me."
"I love you, Kat, I love you. Wait for me. I'm coming."
A teacher once told me that time in the hands of a writer is like play-dough. You can break it into pieces or build it into sculptures, stretch it out till you think it'll pull apart in the middle.
But you never have any more of it than you're given.
"You knew about Dad, right?" she said over the cell phone.
"That he was gay? Yeah."
"How come no one ever told me?"
"Mom never told anyone. I guess she wanted to preserve the illusion that their marriage was perfect, or honor his memory or something. Monet says she was in denial."
"Well, I don't want people to cover up the unpleasant parts of my life when I die."
"Don't—don't say it. Please, Kat, don't."
I held my breath as I catapulted through every tunnel between California and Seattle, and I wished harder than I had ever wished in my life.
That was last time I would ever make a wish in a tunnel.
"How soon will you be here?"
"Two hours, Kat. Hang in there."
"You still have to graduate from high school, remember?"
There was a long silence. Then she said, "Ellie?"
Her hospital room smelled like apples. Monet, her two-year-old son Sebastian sleeping with his mouth open on her shoulder, and Mara, now taller than me, gave me weary, empty attempts at smiles as I rushed past the privacy curtain.
"I'm sorry, Ellie. The doctors did everything they could."
Now every time my daughter unfolds the green-and-white wrapper of an apple lollipop I can't decide if I should laugh, or cry, or hold my breath and make a wish.
--------------- Also, it's important to note that while I don't depict Kat as seeming sick when she's a kid, zidovudine (an antiviral medication used to treat HIV; it's also called AZT) makes you feel like total crap all the time. Or so I've been told.
A/N: Written for a scholarship contest. Fiction, though as usual, somewhat drawn from true stories from my life.
Also, it's important to note that while I don't depict Kat as seeming sick when she's a kid, zidovudine (an antiviral medication used to treat HIV; it's also called AZT) makes you feel like total crap all the time. Or so I've been told.