When she opened her eyes again, she was sat on a cold plastic chair in the corner of a clinical hospital room. She felt the clammy stickiness against her legs and stood up quickly, revolted by the thought of all the walking corpses who had sat there before her. She smiled to herself, realising that if she were dead, it really didn’t matter anyway. She looked down and saw she was dressed in a nightshirt she hadn’t worn for twenty five years. She marvelled at the brightness of the Care Bears and rainbows and tiny flecks of colours. She focused on the back of hands and wondered where her skin had gone. This skin was younger and softer and not hers. She stared at her feet. They were smaller with baby toes attached to them, connected to her legs but not a part of her body that she recognised.
Maggie looked up and observed the woman who was laid in the hospital bed. She had a red cut across her forehead and two purple, swollen eyes. A square of hair had been shaved and silver staples shone brightly against her white scalp. She watched her own chest rise and fall, like a metronome, slowly and regularly, in time with the hissing machine that looked like an accordion. She concentrated on the monotonous bleep of another machine and tried to ignore her own thoughts. Her eyes wandered until she noticed a man sitting on another plastic chair on the other side of the bed.
He seemed huge. She couldn’t tell if he really was big, or her perspective had changed. She remembered every adult looked like a giant when she was seven years old. His bearded chin rested on his chest and his eyes were closed, but Maggie knew when he opened them, they were like the ocean. She knew she liked stroking his head when his hair was short, that it felt like baby hedgehogs before they got their prickles. She knew that she shaved it for him on the back doorstep of their house. Maggie became aware of her tiny legs moving of their own accord towards him. She wanted to remember more. She wanted to look more closely at him.
She knew he had a broken front tooth and he had got it breaking up a drunken fight between his two best friends. She knew that she liked sleeping with her ear against his chest so she could hear his heart beating. She knew that he hated carrots. She knew that his favourite song was Refuse/Resist by Sepultura. She knew his favourite book was American Gods by Neil Gaiman. She knew that they looked after each other. She knew that the dark circles under his eyes weren’t usually there, and as he was dozing in the chair, he was planning what music to play at her funeral. This knowledge made her feel guilty that she couldn’t remember his name. She turned and stared at her adult self in the bed, and tried to grasp it. It was on the tip of her tongue, scratching at the front of her brain and it was beginning to annoy her.
“His name is Lucas.”
A tiny voice spoke from under the bed. It made Maggie feel suddenly stupid for forgetting that basic bit of information, even though she realised she knew it, now somebody had said it. She took a step back and sat down on the cold, hard floor, pulling her shirt over her knees, like she had a million times before. She knew exactly who had spoken, and that the smell of children’s bath time was coming from her. She knew she would be wearing her favourite pyjamas, the black ones with the glow in the dark skeleton on the front. She would be wearing big, pink rabbit slippers that caused her to fumble and trip when she walked. She knew that the little girl under the bed was four years old, she was called Katie, they were sisters and that she was dead. Maggie knew because she had just seen a photograph in her mind of her twenty seven year old sister’s dead body on the bonnet of her car.
Katie smiled back, the tired smile of a child who is ready for bed after a long day playing in the sun, now bathed and relaxed and ready for sleep. Maggie crawled next to her, lay down on her front and rested her chin on her fists. She marvelled at how normal and comfortable it felt, even though they hadn’t done it for years. Katie turned and stared hard at Maggie, with a determined look that only a four year old can possess.
“You’re in the woods,” she stated to her sister. Maggie furrowed her brow, and looked puzzled.
“I heard the doctors saying you weren’t out of the woods yet, so that must mean you’re still in the woods.”
“So I’m not dead?”
Katie shook her head and produced a paper bag. Maggie knew it would be filled with yellow shrimps, 2p each, Katie’s favourite sweets. She picked one out and remembered how it would taste, like sweet shaving foam. She would hold it to the inside of cheek, and it would melt there, sticking everything together and making her unable to talk. She curled her tiny fingers round it and made a fist with the shrimp’s tail sticking out. She knew she couldn’t eat it any other way and she wanted to talk. She wanted to scream.
“You have a choice,” Katie carried on, nibbling the edge of her shrimp. Maggie watched and remembered the countless times she had watched her sister do the same thing with Mar Bars and Twixs and Kit Kats and Drifters.
“I am definitely dead. No coming back. I’m going cold in the morgue as we speak.”
Her words hit Maggie hard in the face, like a door that someone had let go of. They were the words of the adult Katie, subtle and as brutal as a brick but with no malice or blame attached. Maggie swallowed the tears back down into her chest as Katie spun the shrimp round and started nibbling the other side.
“But you’re not dead, not yet anyway. It depends on what you choose. You can choose to come with me, in which case you will choose death, and it will all be over. Or you can choose to stay with him, you’ll choose life and you’ll look back on this conversation as some weird morphine induced dream.”
Katie raised her eyebrows and shrugged her tiny shoulders, indicating that the choice was all Maggie’s and she couldn’t have anything to do with it. Maggie watched her as she popped the nibbled shrimp into her mouth and chewed. She knew Katie was missing out on the best part of the sweet but she also knew if she told her, Katie wouldn’t care. She stared in front of her at Lucas’ booted feet and noticed the harsh hospital lights glint off his steel toe caps. She realized she could see her own reflection in them, the face of a seven year old with all the lines and creases that belonged to her at thirty two.
She closed her eyes and remembered a hand holding hers so tightly that the knuckles were white and the fingers were wrapped up in hers so completely, she couldn’t tell which rings belonged to which hand. She remembered she looked smart, in a suit, and she smelled of Euphoria perfume. An authoritarian voice had spoken and the tension had disappeared from her hand. She felt the feeling slowly come back into her fingers, as she turned and saw him in pieces in front of her. She remembered that was the first and only time she had seen him cry. She remembered taking him home and they had slept fully dressed, he had just wanted to be held. She remembered how he had asked her not to wear the perfume again as it reminded him of that day and everything that had been done to him. She remembered being so shocked by the revelation that he wasn’t indestructible, that she had thrown the perfume away. She didn’t want to be reminded of it either.
“I don’t think we have any more memories to make together, Katie, but I think I might have more to make myself.”
As she muttered it, half to herself, Maggie felt her sister slide away from her and disappear from her side. Maggie slid backwards and stood silently opposite her, watching her little face get redder and redder.
“He’s a good bloke, he’s got the potential to be fat, but he’s okay at the moment. You’ve made the right choice.”
Katie smiled sadly at her sister, as the tears began to flow, down her cheeks, dripping off the end of her chin and making a dark patch on the skeleton’s skull. Maggie sniffed, but it didn’t help the childlike stream of snot that was flowing out of her nose. She held on tightly to her little sister, said a thousand goodbyes, apologised a million times and wished so hard things could be different and half expected them to be.
Katie let go, sniffed hard, and Maggie watched as her young hand opened the door.
“See you later?”
Katie’s head shook slowly from side to side as she whispered sorrowfully,
“Not for a lot of years.”
Maggie watched as she wiped her snotty nose on her pyjama sleeve in one swift, well practised, childlike movement. She began to move through the door, like a character in a dream.
“You’ll be an old lady with grey hair and a face like a raisin.”
She turned and scrunched up her face, in a parody of old age. Maggie found herself smiling, even though her vision was blurry behind the tears and she felt dizzy and nauseous. Her sister’s blonde hair disappeared from the doorway and Maggie resisted the urge to drag her back, knowing deep inside, that it couldn’t be any other way. She knew she would miss her, that the fact that she was dead would cause a gnawing emptiness that would keep her awake at night. But it couldn’t be any other way. Her decision was the right one, she knew before she had made it. Before the choice had even been given to her. Katie was gone.
Maggie stared at the man in the chair, took a deep breath and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. The machine still bleeped, and she realized she felt exhausted, a tiredness that was deep in her bones. She wasn’t even sure if she went to sleep, she would feel any better when she woke up. She stroked his head with the tip of one finger and was glad she had remembered correctly. She was even more thankful he didn’t wake or stir, she didn’t want to have to explain.
Instead the seven year old girl with the big dark eyes and the unruly mass of dark curls climbed up on to his lap and rested her head against his chest. His heartbeat boomed in her ear and she felt his warmth against her bare arms. It felt right. She scrunched up into a tiny ball and pulled her shirt over her knees again. She told him she loved him and that she remembered everything. She apologised for making him worry and for anything she may have done that had hurt him. She said sorry for being unintentionally selfish. She felt his arms wrap around her tiny body and she fell headlong into a deep sleep that she knew she would never get to the bottom of.
She was happy.