Read an Excerpt
or, How to Survive Your Life
By Cynthia D. Grant
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Cynthia D. Grant
All rights reserved.
We are in the country, Helen and I, in a beautiful, boundless field. The birds are making a joyous racket and it's autumn. The sky is so blue!
We're laughing. Helen's telling a funny story. I can't hear the words but I know her thoughts. She's more like my twin than my big sister.
But something's wrong. The world is tilting. It's hard to stand up. I say, "Helen, what's happening?" and she smiles and says, "Don't worry; it's only an earthquake."
Earthquake! The ground beneath me buckles, roaring and ripping apart. I'm falling, falling. ... Then everything changes; the field is smoothly seamed again, the sun is warm, the birds are singing — but Helen has disappeared. I run in wild circles, crying, "Helen, where are you?" realizing, my heart cracking open, that the earth has swallowed her. Helen is gone.
Dr. Shubert says, "You understand what this dream means, don't you, Jessie. Your sister has gone into the ground."
Helen's ashes were scattered three months ago, in the grove at Foothill Park where we loved to go, just beyond that beautiful field.
Mom and Dad wanted Lucas and me to go with them, but as usual, Lucas disappeared. And I ... just couldn't. I stayed at home in our — my — room.
Helen doesn't exist anymore, except in the past and in my mind. No matter how long I wait, I'll never see her again. It's a hard idea to get used to.
Oh, Helen. I can't get used to it.
People say I'm doing well, handling the situation beautifully; as if they'd thought, when she died five months ago, that I was going to die, too.
I thought I would. I wanted to.
But sadness doesn't kill you.
When people ask how you are, they want you to say fine. They think you're doing swell if you tell jokes. The worse things get, the funnier I am. It's like being a comedian on the Titanic. Folks, do you ever get that sinking feeling? But seriously, doesn't the band sound terrific?
You and Helen were so close, people say.
Hearing that past tense kills me.
Dr. Shubert says I have to get on with my life. Jessie, you must pick up the pieces. ... Sometimes things break so badly, they shatter, and the pieces are too small to gather up again.
One week after Helen died, I woke up in the night. The room was luminous with moonlight spilling onto Helen's bed, the blankets flat, the pillow empty. The curtains were moving. Helen's dead, they whispered. She's dead and she's never coming back.
I felt my heart break, and the pain almost killed me. Then, for a long time, I didn't feel anything.
My best friend by default, Bambi Sue Bordtz, said I wasn't crying enough.
"Geez, Jess, you're acting so weird," she said. "When my cousin died, I cried my eyes out and I didn't even like him. If I had a sister and she died, I couldn't stand it."
Did anybody ask me if I could stand it? Did anyone give me a choice?
A lot of our friends have quit talking about Helen. They think they're being kind. They act as if she'd never existed, as if I'd imagined my eighteen-year-old sister. They erase her like that, again and again: Helen who?
It's worse with new people. "Do you have any brothers or sisters?" they ask. When I have to tell them my sister's dead, they look scared, as if they're afraid I might cry; then apologize, as though it were their fault. She dies in their eyes and that's how they'll always see her.
Helen was the most alive person I knew.
My brother hates to talk about Helen. When I mention her, he changes the subject, or plays his guitar extra loud, or splits. Dad's almost as bad. When Mom talks about Helen, he gets all sad — as if Helen was a tragedy. As if her whole life was her death. He plays a lot of golf lately, when it's not raining, or even when it is. He quit asking Lucas to go with him a long time ago. Lucas can't see the game at all. Follow the bouncing ball, he says. Then Dad makes a crack about Lucas's music, and the next thing you know, they're yelling and screaming —
I go into my room and shut the door. Since Helen died, it seems like people are always leaving and doors are closing.
Sometimes I get so sick of the arguments I wish Lucas would move out, but he can't afford his own place. The record store where he works pays minimum wage and his music gigs aren't steady. Then I worry: When Lucas moves out, will we see him anymore? Will he disappear like Helen?
It's stupid to worry so much. Nothing I can do about it, anyway.
Bloomfield called me today; this jerk that Helen went out with for a while. Then he found out she had cancer (thanks to Bambi Sue Bigmouth) and he told Helen he couldn't see her anymore; she was getting "too intense"; he "needed space."
"As if I cared!" Helen said. But I know she did, though she pretended it didn't matter. He dumped her like a ton of bricks, then had the gall to call me up. I said I wouldn't go out with him if he was the last jerk on the face of the earth, and was going to say a lot more but he hung up on me.
When I told Bambi about it, she said, "No wonder you don't have any boyfriends, Jess! Beggars can't be choosers." If Bambi's not here, driving me crazy in person, she's phoning to announce that nothing's new. At least she doesn't call me from the john anymore. Don't ever do that again, I said. You have to be direct with Bambi. A right cross to the jaw would only be a subtle hint.
She wants me to go shopping with her tomorrow. If shopping were an Olympic event, Bambi would be a gold medalist. In third grade, when we got our library cards, she thought we were charging the books. She has credit cards at Bullocks, Macy's, the Emporium, Saks, and Neiman Marcus. Her dad just gave her a convertible for her birthday. I couldn't believe it; he doesn't even like her. "They wanted me, so they have to give me what I want," Bambi says. "I didn't ask to be born."
It wasn't so bad when Helen was here. We spread Bambi around. We shared her. Now I'm supposed to cheer her up all the time and I can't even save myself. I'm sinking. But I can't tell the folks; they're treading water themselves, and Lucas is never here. Even if he were, I couldn't tell him what I'm thinking.
If only I could talk to Helen. That's how I felt when she died; I could survive it if I could talk to Helen.
That was the catch.
I'm supposed to be able to talk to Dr. Shubert, but she was my age in 1938. Dad wanted Lucas to see her, too, but he refused. Nobody can make Lucas do anything. When he was six he got lost; the cops turned out and half the city was looking for him. When they found him in a tree, five miles from home, he wasn't scared, he wasn't relieved. He said, "I knew where I was all the time."
Dr. Shubert's trying to help me get rid of the dreams. It's gotten so bad I can't stand to fall asleep. The lids go down but my eyes stay open, and on the thin, pink screens I see Helen.
Last night the two of us were in the car, Helen driving. The radio was loud, the way she liked it, playing something hard and fast. We were going to the ocean. We were almost there. I smelled seaweed baking in the sun.
Then no one was driving. Helen was gone. I turned around and she was standing by the side of the road. The brakes wouldn't work; I couldn't stop the car. It carried me far away. In the distance, Helen got tinier and tinier.
I didn't mean to leave her behind.
I don't want to dream. I want to fall asleep and wake up ten years from now. I'll be twenty-seven and Lucas will be thirty — and Helen will still be eighteen.
Helen. All those years; all that learning, changing, growing. She had to have braces on her teeth. Why? What was the point? This was always going to happen; it was lying ahead and we didn't even know it. We went right on living, laughing, hoping. We were so stupid.
Someone's touching my knee. Someone's talking to me. "Jessie," Dr. Shubert says, "I can't help if you won't tell me what you're thinking."
"There really isn't much to say," I answer.
No one can help me. No one is my sister.CHAPTER 2
Bambi says, "At least it wasn't a big shock. You knew she was going to die."
Everybody knows they're going to die, but nobody believes it. Death is always a big shock. And Bambi is always a birdbrain.
They found the first tumor when Helen was fourteen. Sometimes she was better, sometimes worse. The cancer just became part of her life. We never admitted that it might kill her. Once you let an idea like that into your mind, it's as if you're agreeing, as if you're saying yes, and we had to keep saying no, no, no —
Right after she died I was scared I'd turn on the TV one night and see scientists hugging each other and screaming: "Eureka! We've found the cure!"
It would be too late — too late for Helen. What difference would it make if all those strangers got saved?
I was ashamed of the way I was thinking.
Helen was such an unlikely statistic. Being sick wasn't her idea. Next to her picture in the high school yearbook, it doesn't say: Plans to be a cancer victim. In the picture her hair is still shiny and thick, her eyes are smiling, her cheeks are round. ...
At the end, she was so thin. Helen had to die; she was so ill there was nowhere else to go.
She didn't talk about the cancer much. Neither did we; it wasn't a dinner table topic. When she did bring it up, I'd skirt the subject; like this time she and I were picnicking at Foothill Park last spring. The meadow by the lake was orange with poppies, and the air was so sweet you tasted flowers.
Helen said, "I'm so sick of being sick. I wish I'd get better or just die."
"You won't die," I replied automatically. "You're just tired."
"I'm tired of being tired," she said. "This girl at the clinic died last week and she —"
"You won't die! Get morbid about it!" I shouted, and ran down to the lake.
I thought we had all the time in the world. I thought the cancer was a big mistake that would get straightened out any second.
It was hard to tell what was going on sometimes. The doctors were vague. And Mom and Dad didn't ask a lot of tough questions. Maybe they knew they'd hate the answers. If there were answers. Doctors aren't psychics. Nobody knows what's going to happen. Dr. Yee said it was important to remain optimistic, that a positive attitude is part of any cure. So we all kept pretending that everything was fine —
One second Daddy's carrying Helen out to the car. The next thing you know, it's the following morning and he and Mom are walking in the door. They didn't say anything, but Lucas and I knew. The moment is frozen in my mind: all of us standing there, looking at each other.
Helen slipped through our fingers like a sunny day. We'd thought it would be summer forever.
Why didn't God take me instead? I am such a creep compared to Helen.
Answer: because that big, blue sky is as empty as a promise. We're all down here on our own, alone, trying not to bump into the furniture.
My attitude stinks. This is not a new development. Helen claimed I was a wise guy from birth; more like a midget than a kid. Where she saw rainbows, I saw puddles. Look on the bright side, Jess!
Where's the bright side now, Helen? You took it with you when you left.
I'm supposed to sit for these kids she used to watch. Helen played games with them and read them stories. I keep them from killing each other and watch TV. The little girl asks me, "When's Helen coming back?" Sara Rose is six and she doesn't get death; she's only seen it in the cartoons on TV. The steamrollered cat springs back to life. "Where's Helen?" Sara Rose asks, and it makes me want to scream. I shouldn't baby-sit; I'm no good with kids, but I can use the money.
What for? I can't think of anything I want anymore. Not clothes or makeup or tapes. It's all so much blahblah. Including school. I have got to start paying attention in class or I'll never graduate in June. It's all so pointless. Who cares about math? All you need to know is how to subtract. Take away one from five equals none.
My family is going down the drain.
Dr. Shubert has suggested a new way for the four of us to talk to each other so we can be sure we understand what's being said. She calls it the "playback" technique. This method is guaranteed to cut down on arguments and make any conversation take twice as long.
Old, unimproved dinner table conversation:
Mom: Eat more broccoli, honey.
Me: I'm not hungry.
Mom: I'm sorry. Did I overcook it?
Me: No! It's fine. I'm just not hungry.
Lucas: Can I use the car tonight?
Lucas: What do you mean, again?
Dad: You borrowed it last night.
Lucas: So? The Impala's on the fritz. I need to borrow it again.
Dad: Not if you take that attitude.
Mom: Bill —
Lucas: What's wrong with my attitude?
Mom: Lucas —
Dad: I might like to know where you're going.
Lucas: I'm not a baby! I'm twenty years old!
Mom: Can we all please lower our voices, please? Your father is just — Lucas: (exiting) Forget it!
Dad: Come back here and apologize to your mother!
New, improved dialogue, using Dr. Shubert's "playback" technique:
Mom: Eat some more broccoli, honey.
Me: No thanks. I'm not hungry.
Mom: You're not hungry.
Lucas: Can I use the car tonight?
Dad: You want to borrow the car.
Lucas: Yes. My car isn't working.
Dad: You borrowed it last night and you need to borrow it again.
Lucas: That's right. I need to go someplace.
Dad: You need to go out.
Dad: Can you be more specific?
Lucas: You're saying that you want to know where I'm going.
Dad: That's correct. Can you be more specific?
Lucas: I'm not a baby! I'm twenty years old!
Mom: Lucas! Bill —
Dad: Don't take that tone with me!
Lucas: Don't you talk to my mother like that!
Dad: I was talking to you!
Mom: Will everybody please —
She's always in the middle, like a referee. No matter who wins, she loses.
Mom wants me to help her sort through Helen's things. Her blouses are still in the ironing basket. Her black boots are under the bed. I can wear some of her clothes but our styles are different. Helen is a V-necked-sweater type of person. I haven't worn a skirt since I was six.
We could've had our own rooms years ago, but I acted like a baby whenever Helen brought it up. It made me feel safe, when I woke up in the night, to hear Helen's soft breathing in the dark.
I've found her last diary. She always kept diaries. There's millions of them, at the top of her closet, and this one, started almost a year ago and kept in the nightstand by her bed.
I don't know if I should read it. I've never read her diaries — except for that one time Bambi and I sneaked a peek, years back. Helen was raving about this guy who sat in front of her in English. Mr. Wonderful, she called him. "So, how's Mr. Wonderful?" Bambi asked her, and Helen threw a fit.
But I'm tempted. Why was she writing stuff down on paper if she didn't want it to be read? She was always writing something; poems or stories. Her words are all I have left. I want to know what Helen was thinking, deep inside herself.
Sometimes when Lucas and the folks are gone, I go through the photograph albums, or I get out the projector and screen the family movies of us at home or on trips.
The movies are weird. Not much is happening. Mom and Dad are smiling and waving, or talking to the camera even though there's no sound. Lucas is usually scowling and straining to edge out of the frame, as if he's been kidnapped by an alien family and doesn't care for life on Mars. There's Helen as a baby, with fat pink arms, and later as a Brownie, her dark bangs clipped short.
Then there's me, Miss Spaghetti Legs. I look like a stick figure with hair, a tangled mass of long blond curls. I'm peering out of it as if it were a thicket. Lucas used to call me Cousin It.
Bambi says I should cut my hair. She says it makes me look like a kid.
I liked being a kid. I hate being like this. Nothing is familiar anymore. Mom and Dad aren't smiling. Lucas has escaped. My body's different, getting big and fat. (Dr. Shubert says I have a distorted self-image. I'm five feet eight and weigh a hundred and ten pounds.) I'm going to a shrink. This is my last year of high school.
Helen is gone and I'm alone.
I want her diary to talk to me, to say: Don't worry, Jess. I'm still your big sister and I still love you the best. You can't see me anymore, but that doesn't mean I'm dead. It means —
"Jessie? Jessie Castle?"
"Yes, Mrs. Smith?"
Excerpted from Phoenix Rising by Cynthia D. Grant. Copyright © 1989 Cynthia D. Grant. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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