CONTROL part 4

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“Let me get my sister.” I sprint into a waiting cubicle ten feet away. Dyl’s head rests over her folded arm on a white desk. She seems so tiny in her chair. Her monitor shows my father lying in his ICU bed, hiding under a million tubes and wires. There’s a pink microphone on the monitor so you can whisper nice things into the speakers by Dad’s head. But as far as I know, Dyl hasn’t uttered a word since the accident seven days ago. She’s also been too upset to go to his bedside, but I keep trying anyway.

“Dylia. We can go back in now.”

Her only response is to turn her head to the wall. A damp tear darkens her sleeve. I head back alone to the ICU.

In a long archway, colored lights zap the harmful bacteria off my skin and clothes before I can step into Dad’s room. I lean on the edge of the bed and peer at him. Half his head is covered in bandages, including his eyes. One arm is missing, leaving an angular stump wrapped in beefy red, artificial skin, “curing” under a special growth light. No legs. During the hysterical first three days, I could barely force down the bile that rose when I saw him. Now I only feel heaviness inside my stomach. After seven days of this, it’s a cold, pure sensation. Distilled sadness.

“Zel,” he croaks.

“I’m here.” I put my hand on his cheek, the closest part of him that’s not covered. My fingertips tremble, either from the caffeine or my sleep-deprived state. The oval ventilator buckled around his chest emits a low hum. It’s helping him breathe, since he can’t do it himself.

I don’t ask him how it feels to be like me, for the first time in his life.

Dad seems to fall asleep, and I let my rib cage rise and fall in unison with his. I’ve done this every minute I’ve spent with him, refusing to sleep so I can breathe alongside him. I can’t stop thinking irrational thoughts, like maybe if I breathe hard enough, I’ll do the work for two and he’ll get better. Then again, Dad has a machine keeping him alive, which is infinitely more reliable than a daughter.

Normally, I’d take comfort in the science of his condition. The percentages, the statistics of his body fluid measurements. Normally, I’d have Dad tell me what it all meant. But now? Science and numbers don’t hold my hand while I stand watching him, alone.

The tubes and IV lines rustle and part to make way for his good hand, which moves toward me. He can’t yank out his tubes; they are embedded with motion-sensors and are too smart for him. His clammy hand lands on mine.

“Promise,” he whispers between breaths.

“Okay,” I say reflexively. I’m used to agreeing with whatever he asks of me. But this time, I don’t know what I’m agreeing to. I lean forward, my lower lip already trembling. Tears blur my vision until they fall over and sluice down my cheeks. Every time he’s spoken, I’ve turned into a walking puddle.

It takes several breaths before he can utter anything else. “Take care of yourself.” I wait for the corollary to his request. Take care of Dyl. But he doesn’t say it. He shuts his eyes, remembering something. “Stay safe, no matter what.”

“Of course, Dad.” His hand jerks and claws into mine. I am surprised by his strength, by the pain he inflicts. His nails dig in hard, as if he’s trying to imprint his message into my body.

“Safe,” he gasps. A few more ventilator breaths and he chokes on his saliva. “But you—I have to tell you—” He swallows the words that come next.

“What, Dad? Tell me what?” I ask, when I notice his nails aren’t hurting me anymore.

On the screen at the foot of his bed, white lines of his heart rhythm turn crimson and zigzag all over the place. The monitor alarm sounds like horn.

“Dad!” I turn around and scream, “Help him! Somebody!”

Four doctors and nurses rush to his bedside and I am pushed away, my hands clamped over my mouth to keep myself from wailing. Already the bedside pharmacy bot, a black mushroom-shaped machine with tentacles attached to my dad’s body, is clicking like mad, sending liquid medicines into his IVs, trying to reverse the inevitable.

As the workers become more frantic, I feel the fingernail marks where Dad squeezed me. I stare at my hand, because I can’t see Dad behind the wall of people. The little crescents are pinkish, shallow, and perfectly curved.

They fade quickly. By the time the doctors leave his room one by one, heads hanging, there is hardly a shadow of a mark left on my skin.

But I can feel the sharpness he’s left behind. The memory is still there. Even after the last doctor pats me on the back and tells me he’s sorry, so very sorry for my loss, I can still feel the pain.

I don’t move for almost an hour. I don’t know what to do.

I know he was hardly around in my life. Sometimes he’d work so hard that a week would go by and I’d barely seem him. The relative difference is slight, but the absolute difference—Here versus Nowhere—is enormous. I waver on the chasm between the two, barely able to stand.

Finally, a young man in a crumpled tie and shirt gently ushers me into a pink room down the hall. “You need some privacy,” he says quietly, his gray eyes still and unemotional. We brush by a group of people clustered by the colored doors.

Of course. The hospital doesn’t want me to disturb the tenuous hope of other families milling about. I am so jealous of every one of those people who have a mangled, tube-filled family member in the ICU.

And then I remember. Oh no. Dyl. I push the man aside and run to find Dyl, still in her white cubicle. She stares stony-faced at the screen, which shows an empty, cleaned bed. No more miles of tubing. The pharmacy bot is shut down, tentacles neatly coiled on its dome, quietly awaiting the next patient. There are no traces of Dad.

Dyl watched the whole thing.

“Dyl,” I say, and sit down next to her. I put a hand on her arm but she shrinks away. I try to scoot a little closer. The world outside the space we occupy just got ten times more enormous. It’s just us and no one else anymore.

“Come, let’s go.”

Dyl doesn’t turn around. Under my hand, her shoulders start to jiggle. For a crazy second, I think she’s laughing at me, until I realize she’s sobbing. Her cry is quiet but high-pitched, sharply etched with despair. I know this sound. If you drained the blood out of my heart, it would be the sound left over, echoing in the chambers.

Dyl turns and pushes her head into my stomach, and I just hold her while she convulses with sobs. I can’t remember the last time we hugged like this. And yet, here she is, needing me again. Just like when she was littler, when I knew I was a good thing in her life.

Footsteps approach, then pause, waiting. I ignore the presence for as long as possible.

“Girls, you both need to come with me. You can’t stay here any longer.” The man stands outside the room, but his foot taps impatiently. He doesn’t step any closer, keeping us both at arm’s length, as if grief is a dangerous contagion. He tilts his head, watching us carefully.

“You’ll get through this.” He offers the words with a confidence that startles me. I’ve already forgotten what that must feel like, to possess certainty about anything. “You’re going to be okay.”

I want to laugh bitterly at his words. Nothing will ever be okay. Because the one person who held us dear, despite our limitless faults, is gone forever.

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