Charlie bolted upright in bed, sweating and shaking. A nightmare, she thought, hugging herself. Just a nightmare.
Alex, who was lying beside her, stirred. ‘What’s wrong?’ she said groggily
‘Nothing. Go back to sleep.’
‘You first,’ said Alex, turning over to face her.
Charlie leant back, staring at the ceiling, and sighed.
Alex waited patiently, but just as Charlie opened her mouth to speak, the phone on the bedside table vibrated loudly. They both jumped and looked at it for a moment, before Charlie scrambled to answer it.
‘Hello?’ she said, hands shaking.
‘Charlie? Are you there?’
‘Yeah, it’s me.’
‘You need to come down here. It’s almost time and she’s asking for you.’
A lump formed in her throat and she nodded. ‘I’ll be there as soon as I can.’ She hung up the phone, jumped out of bed and threw on some clothes.
‘What is it?’ Alex asked.
‘It’s Jessie,’ she said, shoving on socks. ‘I have to go.’
‘Do you want me to come?’
Charlie stopped and considered her. ‘If you don’t mind waiting outside. I’ll need you – after.’
Alex nodded and she too got dressed.
Together they raced to the hospital and burst onto the dark ward. A nurse stopped them just as they arrived.
‘She’s very weak,’ he said in a hushed voice, ‘but she’s conscious.’
‘How long?’ Charlie asked.
‘Hours at the most,’ he said.
Charlie’s chin wobbled. ‘Okay. Thank you.’
‘I’ll be right here,’ Alex murmured, squeezing Charlie’s shoulder. ‘I love you.’
Charlie took a deep breath and squared her shoulders, then opened the door to one of the private rooms.
The air was still and there was no sound but the slow beeping of the many machines set up around the bed. Charlie crept closer, making as little sound as possible until she was next to the bed.
‘Charlie,’ came a quiet voice, ‘you don’t have to sneak up on me.’
Despite herself, Charlie smiled. ‘I thought you might be asleep, and I didn’t want to disturb you,’ she said, sitting down on a chair next to the bed.
‘I’m not tired yet. Maybe later.’
Charlie looked down at the skeletal figure and covered Jessie’s bony fingers with her own.
‘It’s like looking in a mirror,’ Jessie joked feebly, looking up at Charlie.
‘Nah, you’ve always been the better looking one,’ Charlie replied, using her other hand to stroke Jessie’s chilly, bald head. ‘Are you cold? Do you need more blankets?’
‘I feel fine.’ Jessie’s voice was barely more than a whisper, but she smiled widely at Charlie, her chapped, white lips cracking slightly.
‘You know I know when you’re lying,’ Charlie said, going over to the cupboard and pulling out another blanket and a pair of socks. She rolled the socks on over the pair Jessie was already wearing, and tucked her in with the extra blanket. ‘Better?’
Charlie sat back down and dug in the bedside table for the tub of lip balm, which she smeared over Jessie’s lips. ‘Are you thirsty?’
Charlie picked up plastic cup that had been sitting on the bedside table and checked it had water in it. Then she gently lifted Jessie’s head and positioned the paper straw in her mouth.
‘Can you do me a favour?’ Jessie asked once she was finished. ‘Can you open the blinds? I want to see outside.’
‘Of course.’ Charlie did as she asked, revealing the street outside. There wasn’t much to look at. Only the street lights and the other hospital building across the road.
‘I’m the oldest, I should be looking after you,’ Jessie said once Charlie returned.
‘Only by five minutes,’ Charlie said softly. ‘I won’t hold it against you.’
Jessie chuckled slightly, though it sounded more like a quiet wheeze than a laugh. ‘Get in here, then, and give me a hug.’
Charlie kicked off her shoes and climbed into the bed beside Jessie, carefully avoiding all of the wires and tubes attached to her. Then she gathered her sister up in her arms and held her. ‘You’re so cold,’ Charlie said.
‘It’s okay, you’ll warm me up,’ said Jessie, sighing slightly.
They lay there silently for a while.
‘Are you- are you in any pain?’ Charlie asked, tears welling up.
‘Only as much as can be expected. Don’t cry,’ she said, patting Charlie’s hand. ‘It’s fine…’
Charlie squeezed her tightly, feeling Jessie’s bones jostling beneath her fingers. ‘If you need anything-’
‘Just you. I only need you…’
Charlie nodded, desperately holding back her tears. ‘Do you remember that time we snuck out to the park?’ she stammered.
‘I remember,’ Jessie murmured. ‘You broke your arm falling off the swing… Mum was not impressed.’
‘You were so upset,’ Charlie continued. ‘You cried more than I did, even though I was the one with the broken arm.’
‘I felt bad, it was my idea.’
‘You- you looked after me…’
Suddenly, Charlie felt tremors wracking Jessie’s body, and realised with a jolt that she was crying as well.
‘I’m- I’m scared,’ she whispered, sounding for all the world like the little girl she had been that day.
‘You don’t need to be, I’m right here,’ Charlie reassured her. ‘I’m not going anywhere.’ She pressed her cheek against the top of Jessie’s head.
‘Charlie… I’m tired now…’
Charlie nodded, biting down on her lip. ‘It’s okay… You sleep now, I’ll be here when you wake up.’
Jessie settled herself against Charlie, and soon her breathing slowed to a few shallow gasps every so often.
Charlie forced herself to hold it together, in case Jessie could still hear her, and whispered a steady stream of encouragements.
The hours turned and Charlie watched the slow traffic outside the window, holding her sister in her arms, waiting.
She knew before the alarms on the machines began their blaring. A nurse quietly came in and switched them off, but didn’t disturb Charlie. Afterwards it was quiet and Charlie, barely breathing herself, didn’t move. She didn’t want to. She looked down at Jessie’s face and thought she looked almost peaceful, so they lay together for a while longer, until the sun broke the horizon.
The warm rays landed on Charlie’s shoulder and she squinted at their brightness. It was time to go, she thought. Slowly extricating herself from the blankets, she lay Jessie down and gently brushed her lips against Jessie’s forehead. Then she backed out of the room, delaying the moment she would have to take her eyes off her sister for as long as she could.
The door closed with a slight click and Charlie pressed a hand to her mouth, silencing herself, in an attempt to not wake anyone else on the ward. She marched herself out of the ward and found herself in the lift area. Alone, she finally allowed her grief-stricken wail to escape her throat, not even noticing Alex kneel beside her.