Written by Thanisha Chowdhury
“Which one do you wanna hear tonight?”
“Once upon a time, there were two knights, named…Sunny and Spark. Now the older one, Spark, was obviously the cooler, smarter one–”
“Shh, let me tell the story. So Spark was smarter, but Sunny, she was the braver one. She always made sure the royal subjects were safe and didn’t back away from even the biggest, scariest dragons. They lived in a huge castle and had a pet pegasus.”
“Named Lily. One day, when the two of them were out scouting for danger, they found a forest of trees that sang and danced as they walked by and grass that giggled under their feet. The further they went into the forest, the darker it got, until they couldn’t find their way out anymore. Luckily, Spark had a plan. She told Sunny to climb to the top of the nearest tree and point her shield so it would reflect the sun. All the way from the other side of the kingdom, Lily saw her signal and flew over to take them home. They got out safely and lived happily ever after. The end.”
“That story sucked.”
“Well, you’re the one who asked for it. Now go to sleep, I’ve got a headache.”
“Fine.” I make faces at the bed frame as if Nat can see me. In my head, I’m still in the forest with Spark.
“Which story tonight?” Nat yawns.
“You still upset about the doctor’s today?”
I breathe in response.
“I’ll be okay, alright? You don’t have to worry.”
“Now the story. Once upon a time there were two frogs who lived in a pond. They caught flies and hopped from lilypad to lilypad together. But the food around their home was starting to get harder to find, so…”
Her words die into a snore, but the story clings to the air. I wonder if the frogs ever got the food they needed.
I wonder if they lived happily ever after.
“How was chemo?”
“Good. Real loud though.”
“Are you feeling okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m dandy. You’re the kid here, you don’t need to be asking all these questions. You don’t need to be worrying about me.” Nat laughs a laugh like candy wrappers. “Story tonight?”
“Once upon a time there were two lions who-”
“Are you gonna die?”
The air conditioner rattles while I wait for her to conjure up her answer.
“I don’t know.”
And it’s quiet again. I picture Nat staring up at the glow-in-the-dark ceiling like I’m staring up at her bunk. I wonder if the stars are as sticky as they used to be.
“Do you wanna hear a story?”
I stare up at the criss-crossed dark metal against Nat’s mattress, which gives too easily when I poke it. Maybe I can sculpt a Nat-shaped dip in it from the dark.
I wonder who she’s telling stories to now, all alone in her hospital room. The last time I went it was cold and bright like the nurse’s office. Except she doesn’t get to go back to class with a lollipop and a bandaid.
The door groans open and light slithers into the room.
“Your sister’s coming home tomorrow. She wants to be here for the rest of…she wants to be here for the next few days.”
I curl my hand into the blanket. “Okay.”
The sliver of hallway on the floor creeps smaller and smaller into nothingness. The AC’s still softly shrieking and I haven’t brushed my teeth. I feel way too real.
From the top bunk, everything is smaller. The ceiling is too close to my head and when I hold my breath, I swear it comes closer.
I can’t see Nat, but I can hear her breaths rattle below me under the thrum of all the machines pumping her with echoes of life.
This is the only story we have left, I think. This, the empty walls, the glow-in-the-dark stars, Nat’s IV, and of course, the beds.
I’m not sure why I ask. The only response she can give me is a wheeze.
“I’m–I’m gonna tell a story.”
I don’t get an answer. But that’s okay.
“Once upon a time, there were two sisters. Nat and Maddie. They were inseparable. Of course, Nat was smarter and Maddie was braver, but Nat, she was always kinder. She was the one who told Maddie stories, made sure she brushed her teeth, and shooed all the monsters from under her bed. And every night, Nat got on the top bunk and Maddie got on the bottom bunk, and they fought dragons and pirates and rode unicorns across the sky, before they said goodnight and went to sleep. But then Nat she–” my voice catches.
“She got sick. Really sick. And suddenly, their worlds were gone. No more enchanted forest or lilypad filled pond. No more stories, no more magic. They had nowhere left to escape to.
So they spent their nights apart, Nat living off tubes in her hospital room, Maddie counting the stars on the ceiling every evening to make sure there wasn’t an extra one up there. The sickness seeped the magic from Nat, took her words too, until all she knew was white sheets and bitter medicine.
She came back one day, but not ‘cause she was better, no. It meant she was ready. Ready to say goodbye, ready to join the stars, ready to be made into her own fairytale. And Maddie, well, she’d never be ready, but she’d be there. And she’d sleep on the top bunk and tell her own stories to the stars on the ceiling.”
I can’t hear her but if she didn’t hear me, I think that would be okay. I don’t think the sky would get any darker.