"I hate this part," Katie squealed, turning her head into my shoulder. I couldn't help but chuckle. "This isn't funny, Jeniffer Brittany McDonald," Katie growled, though the effect was lost as she shivered against me.
"It's just a pit of needles," I said.
"Needles," Katie moaned.
I shook my head, but gently ran my fingers through her long, silky blonde hair while mumbling nonsense into her ear. I felt her body relax at my touch, though I didn't stop because the screams from the TV were incredibly loud and I knew were still scaring Katie.
"Is it over yet?" my twin sister, Misty, asked from the other end of the couch. Her hands were clamped tightly over her face and she was pressed so far back into the couch I could hardly see her.
"Almost," I told not only her but Katie as well.
I waited and watched as the needle scene ended and moved onto another grotesque part.
"All good," I announced. Misty dropped her hands and sat up straighter while Katie kissed me on the cheek.
"Jen, you're my knight," Katie told me, snuggling against me.
"I know," I laughed as I threw my arm around her.
"I love you," she whispered against my neck.
"I love you, too," Misty cried. I gave her a dirty look and she giggled. "Did I ruin the moment?" she asked sweetly.
"Who's having a moment?" my older brother, Eric, asked as he and his friend Jasper walked into the room. Eric's dark blue eyes took in how Katie and I were sitting on the couch, and his expression turned from curious to amused. He and the rest of my family knew I was a lesbian, and I'd been dating Katie for the past year and a half, but he just couldn't believe I was serious. Eric supported me, but I knew some part of him thought I was only with Katie to shock the hell out of our family, to make my already interesting reputation even more scandalous.
"How cute," Eric mocked, and nudged Jasper. "Don't you think so?" he asked his friend.
"Yeah," Jasper nodded, his face betraying the lewd thoughts that fluttered through his mind at the sight of me holding my girlfriend. I briefly considered starting a serious make-out session just to get him all hot and bothered, but knew that neither my girlfriend nor siblings would appreciate it, so I just fixed him with a slight glare.
"See something you like, Jasper?" I asked.
"Um, no," Jasper lied, his eyes shifting away quickly.
Eric caught this and punched his friend in the arm.
"Sick, man," he cried, causing Jasper to pale considerably. "That's my sister."
"I didn't-I'm so sorry," Jasper said, his face going from paper white to tomato red in under a second.
"Ssh!" Misty hissed, getting everyone's attention. "I want to watch this."
"What is it anyways?" Eric asked, standing in front of the TV. "This is horror," he informed Misty. "You don't watch horror."
"I do with Jen," she said to him, throwing me the look that always made me smile, but also worry. The look was one that told me that I was her savior: the one she could turn to whenever she was in need of saving or comforting. And I honestly liked that. She was my sister, that's what I was supposed to do. Plus, Alice was the type of person that was so gentle and goodhearted that others would try to take advantage of her and she'd let them because she wouldn't be able to see the evil in them. She was a saint, and, in my opinion, all saints needed a badass bodyguard. I was hers.
But what was going to happen at the end of this year? We were seniors and were both going off to different colleges. I wouldn't be able to protect her, and I doubted anyone would be able to take my place, mostly because I believed no one else was worthy and, also, because I knew no one wanted to take on such a serious responsibility.
Things were going to be a mess in a couple of months, and I didn't like to think about it. It made me depressed and panic-y, so I pushed the thought from my mind as I gave my sister a wide smile that made her face glow.
"She's going to have nightmares, you know?" Eric said, turning to me.
"No, I won't!" Misty protested loudly, but no one paid her any mind. We all knew she would.
"So?" I shrugged.
"You still allow her to, don't you?" Eric asked, his eyes narrowing with…anger...pity? Both?
"What's it to you?" I demanded sharply.
"She's not five," Eric almost growled.
"Stay out of our business," I spat.
"What are you talking about?" Katie asked; her eyes wide as she watched the argument between me and my brother.
"I still run to Jen's room when I get scared," Misty admitted in a small voice, making us all focus on her. "I can't help it. I know nothing can get me when she's around…but you're right. I need to grow up."
"Eric, you're an ass," I yelled, hating the tears I saw shimmering in Misty's light blue eyes.
Eric's chest puffed up as he readied himself to shout something back, but then he caught Misty's tearful expression and visibly deflated. He ran over and sat down beside her, taking up the little space that remained on the couch.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, pulling her into a hug. "I didn't mean that you're a baby. I just think that-oh, it doesn't matter. I'm sorry, Misty," he repeated.
"I know," Misty said, wrapping her arms around his giant frame. They sat holding each other for a moment and then pulled away, and I knew by the look on their faces that it was all over.
"We've missed a lot of the movie," Katie commented, breaking the silence.
"It'll all be explained at the end," I said, allowing myself to calm down.
"I don't think I've seen this one," Eric said, positioning himself so that he was sitting more comfortably. "Hey, you mind delaying the video game marathon for a bit?" he asked Jasper, who was still standing with a startled look on his face on the other side of the room.
"Um, yeah, no," Jasper said.
"Take a seat," Eric ordered, pointing to the empty recliner next to the couch. Jasper scrambled to it and we all grew quiet again as we stared at the TV and watched the gruesome deaths of Saw II.
Both Katie and Misty squealed a lot throughout the rest of the movie while Eric and Jasper made obnoxious guy noises of approval at the carnage taking place before their eyes. I just sat and sort of spaced, not really caring about Saw II. It was an overrated movie, and the only reason I'd picked it was so Katie would remain cuddled up to my side, which was something she only did when a horror movie was on. If there was anything else on the TV she was on the edge of her seat, her entire body shaking with excitement. I didn't get how movies and TV shows could get such a reaction out of her, but I didn't mind. I loved her for everything she was, all her little quirks included. They were what made Katie special and a bigger treasure to my heart.
"Well, that was good," Eric said as he stretched after the last scene ended and the credits started to run down the screen. "You ready for me to kick your ass?" he asked Jasper.
"We'll see," Jasper responded, standing up.
"Tough talk," Eric grinned. "Better hope you can back it up."
"You know I can," Jasper said.
"God, this is so mind-numbing," I cried. "Just get out of here. I can't take anymore."
"You heard the little lady," Eric said and pointed at the stairs. "Onward!" he said, racing out of the living room. "Come perv-y friend of mine."
Jasper rolled his eyes before quickly leaving. Their footsteps were loud as they flew up the stairs and into Eric's room.
"Do you think they would let me join them?" Misty asked.
"I didn't know you played video games," Katie said.
"She doesn't," I said, untangling myself from my girlfriend. "But any excuse she has to be around Jasper she's willing to take. Isn't that right?" I asked Misty with a smirk.
"Maybe I want to spend time with Eric," Misty mumbled, but the blushing of her cheeks made it hard to believe her.
"You like Jasper!" Katie shrieked; her typical response to juicy gossip or anything she found sweet.
"No!" Misty cried, sinking back into the couch under the weight of her embarrassment.
"I could go talk to him for you," Katie offered, already jumping off the couch and starting out of the room.
"Oh no," Misty moaned, shaking her head.
"But how's he ever going to know?" Katie asked. "Maybe you two are soul mates, but won't ever know because you're too shy to take the first step."
"Please don't, Kat," Misty begged, now the color of an overripe cherry.
"Kat, baby, leave my sister alone," I said, cutting Katie off. "She'll tell Jasper if, and when, she's ever ready."
"But it's better to do things right now than later," Katie disagreed.
"It's none of our business," I said.
"Love like this shouldn't stay quiet," Katie declared, loud enough to be heard through the entire house.
"Ssh!" Misty cried; her eyes focused fearfully on the ceiling because it was the floor to Eric's room.
"They didn't hear," I reassured my sister. I turned to Katie. "But, Kat, stop," I ordered.
"But…but," she whined.
"Why don't you help me make dinner?" I suggested, getting up from the couch.
"You're just trying to get me to shut up," Katie said, her blue-green eyes narrowing into a glare.
"You know me all too well," I laughed, and headed toward her. I grabbed her hand and laced my fingers with hers. "I'll make the chicken and potatoes, and you'll make an apple pie?"
"You're evil, Jeniffer," Katie grumbled, but with a smile on her full lips. "You know I can't resist that."
"Precisely," I said, kissing her briefly on the cheek. She turned her head at the last second, claiming my mouth with hers. Our kiss was deep and sweet, and I never wanted to stop.
"Aww!" Misty cooed suddenly.
"The audience is supposed to stay quiet," I said, reluctantly pulling away from Katie.
"I can't help it," Misty said. "You two are so cute together."
"You and Jasper would be, too," Katie said, causing Misty to blush fiercely again.
"I thought this was over," I said. "Kat, leave my sister alone."
"Fine, fine," Katie murmured. "But I was just saying…"
"You're lucky I love you," I told her, squeezing her hand and giving her a playful smile.
"Tell me something I don't know," Katie said; her face aglow with affection for me, making her look like an angel-my angel. And I was never going to let God have her back.
"Do you want to help with dinner?" I asked Misty. "I really hate peeling," I added.
"Will Katie stop?" she asked.
"I have already," Katie said.
"Promise not to bring it up again," Misty demanded.
"Ever?" Katie asked. "Because I don't think I can do that."
"Just not today," Misty compromised.
Katie thought about it for a moment. "I think that's doable," she finally said.
"Promise," Misty repeated.
Katie sighed, but complied. "I promise to not bring up the topic of you and Jasper and how you two are perfect for each other," she said, raising the hand that wasn't connected with mine as she spoke.
Misty scrutinized her for what felt like forever, but then she nodded and rose from the couch. "I believe you," she told Katie as she walked over to us.
"Now that that's taken care of, can we all start on dinner?" I asked.
"Yes," my girlfriend and sister said at the same time.
"Good," I said, and pulled Katie through the dining room and to the kitchen. Misty followed behind us.
In the kitchen the three of us split up. Katie went to the cupboard by the stove to gather all the things she'd need to make her pie, Misty opened the pantry and got a giant bag of potatoes, and I got into the fridge to get the chicken breasts for tonight. Katie claimed the island in the middle of the room as hers, and Misty and I shared the counter. Katie and I got to work right away, but Misty had to set up her iPod speakers so we'd have music.
I didn't mind. I hated doing things in the kitchen without having background noise to make it less boring.
All that could be heard for the longest time was show tunes (all that Misty would listen to) and the random noises our tools made as we prepared dinner. Then one of Misty's favorite songs from Wicked came on, and she burst out singing; twirling around the kitchen as she held the potato peeler like a microphone. At first Katie and I resisted joining in her fun, but soon we were dancing along with her.
"Isn't this touching?" a voice suddenly called into the room, making all of us jump. We all turned to the kitchen doorway and there stood my dad with a warm smile on his face. "You all looked very lovely," he said.
"Thank you, Daddy," Misty said, racing to him. She threw her arms around him and almost stabbed him in the eye with the potato peeler, but my dad didn't care. He laughed heartedly and hugged her close.
I turned the stove on and put the seasoned chicken on the burner, unable to not smile at the heartwarming scene of my dad and sister. It wasn't anything new, Misty greeting him like that. She did it every night he came home from work, but it was so innocent and she was genially that excited to see him that it was almost enough to make me cry.
"I missed you," Misty told my dad as she let him go.
"I missed you, too," my dad said, and Misty visibly wiggled with delight. "So what are you girls doing, besides dancing?" he asked, looking at me.
"Making dinner," I said.
"Potatoes, chicken, and Katie's making an apple pie," Misty said before I could open my mouth.
My dad nodded with approval and eyed the almost completed pie on the island. "Made from scratch?" he asked my girlfriend.
"I don't believe it that can junk," Katie sniffed.
"I don't either," my dad said. "But don't tell your mother," he added to me and Misty.
Misty giggled and I rolled my eyes.
"Is anyone else home?" my dad asked, going over to the strainer to get a cup, which he filled with water and gulped down. He filled the glass up and emptied it quickly again. I watched him do this three more times, and I grew worried. My dad was big on drinking water, being sort of a health nut, but he never sucked it down like that.
"Are you okay?" I asked, interrupting Misty as she talked about Eric and Jasper.
"I'm fine, sweetie," my dad assured me, but I noticed that his eyes shifted away as he talked.
"Liar," I said.
"Can't a thirsty man get some water without it meaning something's wrong with him?" my dad asked, sounding more amused than upset.
"Jen, you know you sound just like your mother," my dad said.
"Yeah, well someone has to when she's not here," I replied, squaring my shoulders and putting my hands on my hips-just like my mom. "Now what's up with you?" I demanded.
"It was just a long day. That's all, honey," my dad said, and I wanted to believe him, but the harder I studied him, the bigger my worry that something was wrong increased, though I couldn't put my finger on what was bugging me. He looked the same as always, maybe a little more tired than usual, but it was still my dad. What did I see? Could he be hiding something? And if he was, what was it?
"Are you telling me the-"
"Truth?" my dad finished for me. I nodded. "Yes, I am," he said, finality in his tone.
He was still lying to me, but since I couldn't pinpoint what it was that he was refusing to tell me, I let it drop.
"Are you staying for dinner, Katie?" my dad asked, sensing that we were done discussing him and moving on.
"I hope so," Katie said, throwing me a look as she cut two slits in the top crust.
"No, slave, you have to leave as soon as that pie goes into the oven," I said.
"Then it'll stay right here," Katie declared, holding the pie in place on the island. "So I never have to leave."
"Take it back!" my dad said, trying not to laugh. "I want a slice of that delicious pie."
I faked a heavy sigh. "Fine," I groaned. "Slave, you can stay for dinner."
"That's what I thought," Katie quipped as she went over to the oven, opened it, and popped the pie in.
"Yes!" my dad cried in triumph as the oven door was shut.
"How should I slice the potatoes?" Misty shouted over my dad. She was over by the stack of peeled of potatoes she'd made with a giant pot before her. A potato was in her hand, as was a knife.
"A little thicker than usual," I said, not wanting the potatoes to get done before the chicken did.
"Okie-dokie!" Misty chirped, and got to work.
"Is there anything you'd like me to do?" my dad asked. "I feel kind of useless at the moment."
"Oh, you are all the time," I said, grinning at him.
"Funny, honey," my dad replied, chuckling.
"Um, you could wash the dishes we used up so Mom won't freak later tonight," I said.
"Good idea," my dad said, starting for the sink. He got halfway there before stopping beside the island to cough up, what sounded like, both his lungs. The noise coming out of him was loud and phlegm-y, and it got not only my attention, but Katie's and Misty's as well. We watched as his chest heaved and his face turned bright red.
"Dad?" I asked, stepping toward him.
He raised his one hand and waved me away, but I didn't stop.
"You sound horrible," I commented. "Are you coming down with something?"
"No." His voice was low and hoarse, barely audible. "I-I'm fine. It's just a-a lit-"
Suddenly he stopped talking, stopped coughing, and stood motionless. Then his eyes rolled back into his skull and his entire body collapsed. It landed on the floor with a thud that shook the kitchen.
I stared, shocked, at the heap of flesh and bone that was my dad. Time seemed to stop and everything thing was eerily silent. My mind refused to comprehend what had just happened, and I was left dumbly standing there. I couldn't move and I didn't know what to do.
Misty's scream pierced through my head, crashing me back to reality. Things returned to normal and I jumped into action.
I ran to my dad and sank down beside him. I shook him a couple of times, but there was no response. He just laid there, the only sign of him being alive the uneven way his chest rose and fell.
"Daddy," Misty sobbed. "Jen, what's wrong with Daddy? Is he okay? He's okay, right?"
"I-I don't know," I murmured.
"No!" Misty wailed; her voice shrill enough to remain ringing in my ears long after she'd stopped.
"Quiet," I said just as Eric and Jasper raced into the room.
"What happened?" Eric demanded. His eyes were wide and alert. He looked ready for a fight.
"Daddy!" Misty cried, shakily pointing to him. "He's hurt," she added before breaking down into uncomprehending sobs. Katie pulled her close and tried her best to soothe her.
"Dad? What?" Eric asked. He took in me crouched next to our dad with one sweep of his eyes. "What happened?" he repeated.
"He just collapsed," I answered, sounding like the terrified little girl I felt like. "I don't know what's wrong."
"Go call the cops or something," Eric told Jasper.
Jasper nodded and without a word whipped out his cell phone and punched in some numbers. Eric approached me.
"I knew something wasn't right," I babbled. "I just didn't-he said-this is my fault."
"No," Eric roared. His hands gently gripped my shoulders. "I don't want to hear that, you understand?" he said.
"But, Eric, I-"
"No, Jen," Eric said sharply.
"An ambulance is coming," Jasper murmured as he closed his phone.
"Daddy," Misty moaned, which was followed by gibberish words of comfort from Katie.
"Dad," I choked out, not wanting to cry, but unable to hold back my tears. They slid down my cheeks in shameless waves.
"It's okay, Jen," Eric whispered, picking me up like I weighed nothing. He held me tightly and I soaked the fabric on his shoulder. Eric didn't care and didn't let go until the paramedics showed.
"I'm going to go in," Misty said, raising her head from the hard arm of the chair she was sitting in.
"We were just in there a little while ago," I replied, my eyes closed as I tried-unsuccessfully-to get some sleep.
"I don't like leaving him alone," Misty said, her voice wavering. My eyes snapped open and I looked at my sister. Her blue eyes were haunted and the shadow of heartbreak clung to her pixie-like face. She was taking this worse than me, Eric, or my mom.
"Do you want me to go with you?" I asked, unable to leave her by herself. It wasn't that I thought she would do something harmful to herself. I just couldn't stand Misty battling through her hurt without me, her rock, beside her.
"You don't have to," Misty said, but relief flooded her eyes. "I know you want to sleep, and you need it. You don't look all that great."
"Speak for yourself," I said, trying to smile, but failing miserably. "No, I want to go with you, Misty," I continued a moment later. "I couldn't sleep even though I want to. My mind won't rest."
"I know," Misty murmured. She reached for my hand and I grasped hers.
"Let's go see Dad," I said, and the two of us stood.
We walked down the mostly empty hallway in silence. We passed by a few nurses, but most of the activity was dead, which sort of surprised me. Yeah, it was close to midnight on a Wednesday, but shouldn't there be people running this way and that? Isn't that how hospitals were always portrayed? Did no one get hurt or sick on Wednesday nights?
My dad's room was near the end of the hall. I didn't knock before opening the door (I didn't want to wake my dad if he happened to be sleeping) and pulled Misty into the brightly lit hospital room. There were three beds total, but only the middle one was occupied by my dad. We approached him and stood on one side of his bed.
I gazed down at his sleeping form and fought the urge to cry. What lied there was not my dad. Oh, he looked sort of like him. The hair was the same dark hazel color that he'd passed on to me and the nose was his: slightly large and crooked from the four times he'd broken it in fights. Even the shape of the face was the same, but that was where the similarities ended. My dad used to have full, rose colored cheeks and this guy's were gaunt and paler than snow. There were black circles under his eyes where my dad had none. And the biggest thing was that my dad was a good 200 pounds, but this guy couldn't weigh 130. He looked like a skeleton covered with withered flesh.
I wasn't looking at my dad. No, the person on the bed was dying of some terminal cancer that he'd known about for over a year, and was only a shadow of the man that I had always run to whenever I needed help; one of the three people in the entire world that I trusted beyond all doubt. The man on the bed wasn't the same one that taught me that dreaming was pointless unless I intended to carry out my desires, and he wasn't the one that encouraged me to wish big and live large. He wasn't the one that convinced my mom that my being a lesbian wasn't the end of the world, that I was still their daughter no matter who I choose to love. He wasn't the one that drove me to basketball, soccer, and softball practice because my mom refused to (she didn't believe a girl should be so involved in sports. I was supposed to be like Misty: dainty and girly).
The man wasn't my best friend. He was just a guy dying, and I refused to believe he was what my dad had become.
"He looks peaceful, doesn't he?" Misty mumbled.
"Yeah," I agreed, and didn't mention that is was because Death was close.
"Will God make him one of his angels?" Misty asked.
"Misty, we both know that Purgatory comes before Heaven or Hell," I said.
"Yes, but God can break his rules," Misty pointed out.
"True," I said, a flicker of a smile crossing my lips. "So in that case, I have no doubt that God will make Dad an angel."
"It isn't fair," Misty suddenly sobbed, leaning her head against my shoulder. I wrapped my arms around her and buried my head in her wild black hair to hide the tears that were running down my face. "I don't want Daddy to die."
"I don't either," I whispered.
"Why, Jen? Why is this happening?" Misty demanded.
"It's God's will," I replied, wishing I had something better to tell her, something that would make the hurt a little less thick.
"Well, God's stupid then," Misty growled.
"You don't mean that," I mumbled.
"Yes, I do," Misty disagreed. "There are a ton of very bad people that He could kill. The world would be better without them, so why is He taking Daddy? Daddy's not a bad guy. Daddy's…Daddy's…" Misty blew out of steam then and cried harder.
"Ssh," I cooed even though I was bawling just like her.
It took Misty (and me) a long time to calm down, but after we did, we sat in the seats beside my dad's bed. We didn't speak and our hands stayed clasped together.
The minutes ticked by slowly and I felt my eyes growing heavy. I looked at Misty and found her head cocked to the side, her mouth open with small snores escaping every few seconds. I grinned slightly, thinking that if we were anywhere else I'd wake her up and pick on her for sounding like a freight train. It was stupid and childish, but I've been teasing her ever since we were little and it had become sort of a tradition.
"Eh," my dad moaned suddenly, his body fitfully turning over.
"Dad?" I called softly.
All I got in response was another loud moan and something that sounded like 'I'm rolling'.
I slowly untangled my hand from Misty's and got up. I stooped over my dad's sleeping form and gently shook his shoulder.
"Dad?" I said again.
His eyes popped open and he gazed at me wildly.
"Renee?" he asked.
"No, it's Jen," I said.
My dad's face twisted in confusion and his eyes narrowed as he stared at me harder. "Jen?"
"Yeah," I replied.
"Oh, hey, honey," he said, his expression turning joyful. "How are you?" he asked, sitting up and leaning back against his pillow.
"I'm fine," I said. "How are you?"
"Oh, peachy keen," he told me.
"That's good," I said, nodding at his lie. What would be the point in arguing with him?
"What time is it?"
"Probably close to one in the morning," I said.
"What are you doing here then?" my dad asked, his voice strong and stern. "You should be at home in bed. Don't you have school in the morning?"
"We stayed here while Mom and Eric went home to get some sleep," I said. "They'll be back around five. And it's the weekend."
"You guys shouldn't be doing that," my dad reprimanded gently. "It isn't healthy."
"We aren't going to stop," I declared.
"Stubborn, aren't you?" my dad chuckled.
I smiled. "You bet."
"So Misty is with you?" my dad asked.
"Right there," I said, pointing to her in the chair. My dad turned his head and looked. His mouth turned up in a small smile at her sleeping form.
"You know she doesn't look like she's changed any the past ten years," he murmured. "I still see a beautiful seven-year-old."
"Aren't all fathers supposed to say something like that about their daughters?"
"But it's different with you," my dad said, meeting my eyes. "You're so much older, so much wiser, maybe even more so than me or your mother."
"Dad," I said, rolling my eyes. "That's ridiculous."
"No, it's not," my dad said sharply. "You're older beyond your years, and you shouldn't be ashamed. I think God intended it to be that way with you and Misty. She's a sweet little thing that will always look at the world through the eyes of a child-with unblemished innocence. But you face reality with your head held high and filled with a determination that is unwavering. You complete each other."
I nodded in agreement.
"She's not going to be well when I die," my dad predicted.
Hearing him talk about his death in such a nonchalant way was a punch to my stomach, but I didn't let it show on my face as I said, "I know."
"She's going to need you, Jen," my dad said. "For her heart to heal you have to be with her."
"But I can't forever," I said, panic ringing a loud bell in my head as I picked up on his meaning. "I have to live a life of my own."
"And you can," my dad said.
"But not too far away from her," I said bitterly. "You're telling me to forget college and stay at home."
"No, of course not," my dad said. "I want you to go to college, you have to, but maybe you shouldn't go to Arizona. At least not for a year or two."
"But it's my dream to go after I graduate!" I cried, in that moment not caring if I woke Misty, or the entire world, up. "And didn't you always tell me to follow my dreams?"
"I did, and you should," he said. "But I fear for Misty if you aren't around for her."
"Why does her happiness matter more than mine?" I asked, tears of anger building in my eyes.
"This isn't about happiness," my dad said calmly. "I'm only asking you to stay in Washington because I know that Misty will need you and if you leave and she…changes you will never forgive yourself."
"So this is for both of us," I growled, and wanted to add 'but mostly for Misty', but I couldn't bring myself to.
"This isn't fair," I whined.
"I know, but in the long run you'll see that what I'm saying is the truth," my dad said. "And maybe even thank me."
"I don't-Misty has Eric and Mom. Why me?" I moaned.
"Jen, taking care of your sister isn't a punishment," my dad said gently, reaching for my hand. I jerked it away and ignored the hurt that crossed his face.
"You don't understand what it's been like," I whined.
My dad smiled grimly. "I understand more than you think," he said.
"Jen, you can do whatever it is that you wish," my dad said. "If your heart tells you to go to Arizona then listen and follow it. I don't want you to be unhappy."
"This isn't fair," I repeated tearfully, trying to block out my conscience which was agreeing with my dad. I did need to stay for not only Misty's sake, but my own.
"Oh, honey," my dad breathed.
"I hate this," I said.
"I'm right, aren't I?"
"Yes," I admitted.
"You're a good sister," my dad said, going for my hand again. This time I let him take it. "Misty doesn't know how lucky she is," he continued.
I didn't say anything, but silently agreed.
We stayed like that for a long number of minutes, and then suddenly my dad started coughing, the noise vicious and agonizing. He let go of my hand and covered his mouth.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
My dad shook his head while he continued to cough.
"Do you need some water?" I looked around trying to find some. "I'll get you a glass."
"N-no," my dad said. "That won't help." He removed his hand from his mouth and I saw scarlet flecks on his fingers. It was blood-his blood.
"Oh, God," I yelled. "I'm going to find a nurse."
"They can't do anything."
"You need help," I insisted. "That's blood."
"I need to let go," my dad said.
I felt my heart stop.
"What?" I asked.
"I thought I'd be able to last until your mother got here," my dad said, not looking at me. "But it's too painful. I can't do it. And this," he waved his bloodied hand, "tells me that I'm going whether I want to now or not."
"What are you saying?" I whispered.
My dad's eyes swiveled and locked with mine. "You know exactly what I'm saying."
I blinked a few times as my baffled brain refused to register what was going on.
"I don't want her to be here," my dad said into the sudden silence that had wrapped itself around us. He pointed at Misty. "Will you please get her to leave?"
"Okay," I said, my feet moving without my brain's consent.
In a moment I stood in front of Misty, and shook her shoulder.
"Misty," my mouth said, though my brain still wasn't working yet.
"Hmm," she groaned.
"Misty, can you wake up?"
"W-what?" she asked, her eyes fluttering.
"Wake up," I said, shaking her a little harder.
"Why?" Misty said. "Is something wrong with Daddy?" Her eyes opened wide then and she gazed at the bed where my dad was pretending to be asleep…or was dead.
"No. No, he's fine," I said, pushing away my last thought.
"Oh," Misty said, yawning. "So what's up? Why'd you wake me?"
"You sounded like you were having difficulties breathing," I said, the lie easily rolling off my tongue as my brain switched from focusing on my shock and pain to protecting Misty from horribleness. "I think you should go get a drink."
"You think?" Misty mumbled.
"Well, okay," Misty said, stretching before she slowly stood up. "Do you want something?" she asked.
"Um, yeah," I said quickly.
"Anything in particular you'd like?"
"Just surprise me," I said.
Misty smiled sleepily. "I like it when I can give surprises," she said.
I nodded. "I know."
"Okay. I'll be back soon," Misty said, starting for the door.
"Don't hurry," I said. "Take all the time in the world. Maybe even get something to eat if you're hungry."
"A doughnut sounds good," Misty mumbled to herself as she opened the door and walked out.
I watched her leave and wished, for a brief second, that I was her. She had it easy, she had everyone (mostly me) looking out for her. She didn't have to deal with the same cruel, uncaring reality that the rest of us did. She was sweetly ignorant and at that moment I wanted that as well.
"She really is lucky to have you," my dad said, causing my mind to crash back to the here and now. I'd never have the same luxuries as Misty because I was Jen, and Jen wasn't allowed to wear the rose tinted glasses that had been given to Misty at birth.
"Yes," I said as I went to his bedside.
"You can leave if you wish, Jen," my dad said. "I'd rather you not witness my death. No father wants to put his child through that."
"I can't leave you alone," I said, though every fiber of my being was screaming for me to flee the room. But I couldn't let my dad die all alone. I loved him too much to do that to him.
"Thank you," my dad said, breaking into another coughing fit.
I watched him with tears rolling down my face, unsure of what else I could do.
"I really should go get someone," I finally said after a few minutes.
"No," my dad said. His voice was hoarse and strained. "They'll only try to prolong the inevitable."
"Oh, dad," I sobbed.
"Hold my hand, honey," he ordered, holding his palm out. I grasped it and clung to him like my life was the one about to end. He sighed, squeezed my fingers, and leaned back against his pillow. "They're calling me," he murmured, closing his eyes.
"Who?" I asked.
"The angels," my dad said.
"Are they beautiful?"
"Almost as beautiful as your mother," he replied, and I laughed even though it felt as if someone was tearing my heart out of my chest.
"Mom would've liked to hear that."
"Make sure to tell her okay, honey?"
"Sure, Dad," I said.
"I'm going to miss you so much," he said softly. His breathing was slowing down and any color that was still in his cheeks was leaving. My dad-my best friend-was dying and all I could do was cry like a baby.
"I'll miss you, too," I whispered.
"They're getting louder."
"Then go to them," I said, but really I wanted to beg him to hang on, to fight, to stay.
"Take good care of your sister." My dad's voice was barely audible now.
"And never forget what I taught you."
"I won't," I promised.
"Good girl." He smiled. It lit up his entire face and for a brief moment I was staring at the face of my healthy, always-going-to-be-there-for-me dad. "I love you, Jen," he said, squeezing my hand again.
"I-I love you, too."
He let out a content sigh and then a shudder went through his body. He let go off my hand to halfheartedly cover his mouth as he began to cough again. I knew by the wet sound of it that he was done. This was it.
"Don't go, Daddy," I murmured against my will, tears dripping off my chin at a steady flow.
"Je-" My dad started to say, but stopped as he began struggling to breathe. Then suddenly a gasp wrenched itself from his mouth and his chest just stopped moving.
It was over.
My dad was dead.
A weird wailing escaped my mouth as I buried my hot, tearstained face in hands, and I mourned the loss of the best man I'd ever known by myself. Misty didn't show and a nurse didn't walk into the room. It was just me and the feeling that a gaping hole was in my heart. I had no one that I could run to-that I wanted to. Misty was the only family around and I couldn't let her see me like this. I needed to do this alone, to cry everything out before she came back and learned what'd happened. She was going to need me to be strong, to be her rock.
And I would be.
I always would be.