Ashley to Ashes

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Young Adult  |  House: Booksie Classic
A artist brother grants his twin sister her dying wish.

Submitted: August 30, 2012

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Submitted: August 30, 2012

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"Are you sure that's what you want?"  I leaned down and asked my twin sister Ashley.

She slowly raised a frail hand to my face and tried to cup my cheek, but her cold fingers trailed down to my chin, then dropped back on the bed.  "Yes, I'm sure."  She whispered, her voice hoarse and cracking.  "But please.   Don't tell mom and dad.  Ever."

 A once healthy and  vibrant girl just a few days shy of our sixteenth birthday,  Ashley was now on the verge of succumbing to the cancer she had endured painfully throughout her life.  She had wasted away to a haunting image of her former self.  Her once glowing amber colored eyes were now hollow and blackened, her peach complection now grey, her athletic figure, skeletal.  And she was asking me yet again to do something for her, a request  she had asked countless times before.  It made me nervous, unsure.  Was it even legal?  Was it blasphemous? I researched her wacky idea to see if anyone had attempted it before, but couldn't find anything.I didn't want to tell her no, though.  I loved my baby sister too much.  

She had wanted to be cremated, much to mom and dad's dismay, but Ashley was adamant about not being put into the ground or in a cement wall.  She always wanted to be with us, in this house.  She even picked out the urn, a pretty cream colored cloisonne one, with an iris and butterfly painted on it. She made sure mom emptied out and reserved a space inside the hutch that was in a corner of the living room, right on the second shelf.  Mom cried silently and sighed loudly as she dusted off the glass.  Ashley had said it was better this way, instead of us going somewhere to visit a headstone, she would be here with us.  

The outcome from her illness was inevitable, we had known for years but we just didn't know when. There were so many close calls and times of remission.  But this time, it was different.  No matter how much time you have to get used to the idea, you still aren't prepared for when the moment is upon you.

 I gently kissed her forehead and pushed back what was left of her thinning blonde hair out of her eyes with my thumb.  "I promise I won't tell."  I replied with a tight smile.

"You paint so beautifully."  She said, her chapping lips  cracked as she managed to smile  her trademark lopsided grin.Even a smile was exhausting for her to do at this point. 

 That would be the last time I would see that smile on her face.  

That would be the smile I would paint in her portrait.  "Paint me in a field of tulips."  She continued.  "Like the ones we saw  in Washington, remember?"

I remembered that trip well.  It was spring time two years ago when she was in remission again, and she had begged our parents to journey up north after hearing about a tulip festival during our camping trip to Mount Rainier.  The trip would take about two hours, but she swore after seeing pictures, it would be worth the drive.  And she was right.  It was a photographers and painters dream.  An ocean of reds, yellows and pinks.   Old weathered barns and wooden fences dotted the countryside.  A cool breeze made the sun beating down on us bearable, and fog rolling in from the Puget Sound was embracing the surrounding hills.  Mom and dad smiled and hugged each other, so happy to see their little girl feeling well enough to run and dance through the fields, giggling and twirling, the silk scarf on her head which covered up the quarter inch of new growth of hair flapping in the wind.  Ashley crouched down in the field of pink tulips.  "Take my picture!"  She said giddily, and smiled that trademark Ashley smile of hers as I snapped away.  I would paint the one where she held her arms up, her fingers stretched out as if she was giving the sky a bear hug, her head tilted to one side.  I told her I would use that picture.

"Just one more thing."  She asked.  "Give me a full head of hair!"  She tried to laugh, but it came out more like a wheeze, then a cough.  I softly squeezed then kissed her hand and chuckled  as I reached over to her nightstand with my free hand and opened the top drawer. I took out a small pair of scissors, she nodded in approval and I snipped off a few strands, put the scissors back in the drawer then tucked her hair in my shirt pocket.I heard the creaking of a door and craned my neck over my shoulder to see our parents walking in. 

"What's so funny you two?"  Asked dad.  I turned to look back at my sister.

"We were just talking about the painting she wants me to do of her."  I said, tapping her shoulder with my fingers.

"Oh." Said mom, rapidly blinking her eyes as if trying to keep tears from pooling up in them,  then putting a balled hand to her mouth.  She knew what that meant.  It was Ashley's final request, for me to paint her portrait after she passed.  But, there was a caveat that would be a secret between her and myself.  A pact between brother and sister.  Painter and muse.

I tried to lightened the mood, even though the weight of the room was heavy.  "She said she wants me to give a head of hair in her painting, that's why we were laughing."

Mom closed her eyes and shook her head then turned away.  Dad put an arm around her shoulder and squeezed.

"She wants me to paint her in the tulips, remember that trip, mom?  She was so happy."  I said, trying to distract mom from crying.  Mom turned around to look at us, her eyes reddening, but she managed to smile.

"Yes, I remember that dear."  She said, as she walked over to the other side of my sisters bed, and sat down.  Dad joined her.  We sat for the next couple of hours reminiscing.  Ashley turned her head to look up at them, and slowly blinked once.  Mom lovingly stroked her little girls arm and cheek, while dad clasped her other hand, running his thumb across her knuckles.

Then, Ashley closed her eyes and I heard a different sounding breath escape her lungs.

I hung my head down and squeezed my eyes and lips tightly together, as I held my own breath not yet ready to release my grip on her.   I knew she was gone, I felt the life leave her.  I felt a sudden emptiness inside, that only a twin would know.  Dad swallowed and exhaled loud, furrowing his brows then kissed her hand.  Mom leaned down and rested her cheek next to Ashley's, stroking her lip and chin.  "Oh my baby girl.  I love you.  Go to the angels."  She said as she covered her face with kisses.

Many of Ashley's friends shared stories and laughter at her memorial service three weeks later.  It was a happy remembrance of a girl who loved flowers, hiking and snow cones,  and fought so very bravely for most of her life.  It was the middle of October, fall, her favorite time of the year.  She loved the smell of pumpkin candles in the air and the way the maple leaves looked as they changed color from green to red, even though it still felt like summer.  Typical California weather.  I felt a light breeze, so I closed my eyes and imagined we were back in that tulip field.  I could hear her laughter, I could smell the salt air.

I missed my sister.  But I suddenly felt like she was prompting me to get started on what I had promised I would do.Typical of her to be so impatient.  I had put off painting the portrait for several weeks, I just didn't have the motivation to get started. I always took my time, took things for granted.  She on the other hand, lived every day as if it was her last, because it could have very well have been.  I would walk by the urn in the morning on the way to school  say "hi"  and apologize, but I just wasn't ready to do it yet.

But now I was ready.

I set up my wooden paint-tinged easel on it's wobbly legs and propped the picture of her next to the blank twenty four by thirty six canvas.  I prepped all my paints and brushes, then did a quick sketch. I took the strands of hair I kept hidden in my paint box and held them delicately between my fingertips, put it to my lips and kissed it, then set it down next to the color I would use for her hair.  It still smelled like that strawberry shampoo she loved to use.   I inhaled deeply and ran my fingers through my hair, shook my head and smiled,  then grabbed a small cup and spoon I had bought especially for this moment.

It was just after midnight, and mom and dad were asleep.  I slowly tiptoed towards the hutch, opened it, took out the urn and set it in the dining room table.  Carefully, I twisted the top and set it down.  I looked inside.  There didn't seem to be a lot of her in there.  "Oh Ash, why did you ask me to do this?"  I whispered to the chalky substance.  Reluctantly, I dipped my tablespoon into the container, and scooped up a heaping portion   then transferred it to the cup.  I tightened the lid, slid the urn back into its place and headed back to my room with my cup of Ashley.

Gingerly, I mixed her ash with the paints that I was going to use for her skin tone; yellow ochre, cadmium red light, alizarin crimson and titanium white. The ash gave the paint a unique and clumpy texture, like oatmeal.  Then I  took the strands of hair and swirled them in with a mix of naples yellow, ultramarine blue and dioxazine purple.  I took my brush, a filbert bristle with sable hair, and put the mixture to the canvas and began painting.  The picture of Dorian Gray seeped into my thoughts, like turpentine.  Oscar Wilde's story was considered immoral in its time. Was this any different, incorporating the ashes of my deceased sister into a painting of her?   Still, I continued, watching her come to life with each stroke.

It took me eight days to finish, and when it was finally done, I yelled out for my mom to come and take a look.  When she walked into my room, she froze in the doorway and gasped.  "My goodness, you captured her spirit so well Mason!"  She exclaimed, clutching her hands over her heart as she walked over to it to  examine it more closely.  "It's so beautiful."    She reached a hand up as if to feel it.

"Don't touch it, mom, still wet!"  I slightly scolded her.  She quickly retracted her hand.  "I put some liquin and linseed oil in it, but it won't be dry to the touch for a couple of more weeks." 

A tear trailed down her left cheek as she scanned her little girls face.  "You got her smile down too."  She said looking over at me as she grabbed my hand and squeezed it tight. "The texture of this painting, it's so different then other ones you have done."  She observed.  I just shook my head and shrugged my shoulders then turned back to  stare at the painting, proud of myself and how well it came out, when I could have sworn I saw Ashley wink at me.  My eyes widened and I shook my head and looked again.  Mom tilted her head to one side and raised a concerned brow.  "Are you okay honey?"  She asked.  Ashley crossed her eyes and stuck her tongue out.

I rubbed by eyes with my palms.  "Yeah, just tired I think."

"Well you worked very hard on it.  Would you mind hanging it up next to the hutch?"  She patted me on the back.  "I need to get dinner started." 

"Sure mom, no problem."  I said, shutting the door behind her.  I walked back over to the painting put my hands on my hips, then crossed my arms,  stroking my stubbled chin with my left hand.  Surely that had to be a trick of over-tired eyes.

But she winked again.  Slowly and deliberately, making sure I could see it was no trick.

"Ashley?"  I said to the painting, squinting and getting a closer look.  This time she smiled.  I leaned back and thought I heard her laughter.  "Well, okay then.  Let's go hang you up little sister."  She nodded in agreement.  I bit down on my lower lip, trying to contain my shock and amusement  as I carried her over to the living room, where I proudly hung her next to the hutch.  I stepped back to make sure it was straight.  It was slightly crooked, so I carefully adjusted it to the right with one finger.  "Is that good?"  I asked.  She smiled.

"What was that, honey?"  asked my mom, wiping her hand with a rag, walking out of the kitchen.  Startled, I turned to look at her. Ashley contained her pose.

"I was just asking if you thought that looked straight."  I said.  

"Yes, that's perfect."  Mom wiped another tear from her face.   "Perfect."  She repeated, then turned to walk back into the kitchen.   The aroma of turkey meatloaf wafted into the living room as I heard the oven timer go off. It was Thursday, the day she passed, and we ate it every Thursday because it was Ashley's favorite.  I looked back up at her in the painting. She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply then looked down at me and smiled, her long blonde hair dancing in the breeze.  I smiled back knowing my sister was alive, forever young and vibrant,  in a field of tulips, hugging the sky.

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© Copyright 2017 Tania Penn. All rights reserved.

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