The doctors kept a list of my problems.
It was accurate enough, though it was lacking the most important of my ailments. I want to live.
"No one wants to die," Doctor Greenwood said, not looking up from my charts.
"You weren't listening."
He was also lying, but if I waved suicide statistics in his face, he would call me cynical and have me talk to my therapist again. I couldn't sit with Ms. Agatha for an hour. There were too many clouds outside my window in need of watching.
"I said, 'I want to live.' Not, 'I don't want to die.'"
He looked up, watching me over the rims of his glasses. They were for reading, but he thought they made him look refined, so whenever he didn't need them, he would let them slide down his extra-long nose and narrow his crow-footed eyes at you.
"Ericka, I explained this to your parents, but there is nothing we can do besides make the pain a little more bearable. Tumors don't care if you don't want to die." He was one of those men that liked the sound of his own voice, even when everyone else were plugging their ears and begging God to please shut this man up. "Even with modern medicine, there is only so much we can do. We should set up another appointment with Ms. Agatha."
No, we shouldn't. I would much rather run through the hospital with my gown untied than sit in the same room as Ms. Agatha and her nasally voice. I already knew how the session would go: She would tap her ridiculously long, multi-colored nails and ask me how I was doing, ignoring the way I glared at her hands. Then, before I could mutter the required answer, she would bring up that Dr. Greenwood said I still wasn't at terms with my death. Naturally, I would ask her why the hell I would be on terms with a death I didn't want. But, of course, I never said I didn't want to die.
I said I want to live.
"I thought she had a doctor, not a fuckin' asshole."
Cody was standing in the doorway, a Wendy's bag in one hand and a soda in the other. He was wearing a yellow shirt with "a lot sweeter than I look" printed down the front in maroon. He was glaring at the doctor, his eyes narrowed, his nose wrinkled, and his lips bunched. Looking like that, it was hard to remember that he was a whole lot sweeter than he looked.
Dr. Greenwood, his spine erected with holier-than-thou pride, turned to face the teenager. Even in annoyance, he looked refined. Cody didn't give a damn about class. He wore glasses, but he probably left them on the dashboard of his rusting Ford. He had a job, but he still didn't replace any of his jeans with holes in the knees. There was a battle of egos in my hospital room, refined pitted against pissed off, both convinced of their own victories.
"Are you done in here?" Cody asked, biting off the words. "I would like to talk to my sister. Alone." Stiffly, Greenwood moved forward, motioned for Cody to get out of his way, and stepped out into the hall, placing my folder into the bin outside the door. His elegance wouldn't let him be reduced to arguing with a kid, but Cody wasn't done. He stuck his head out of the room and called after the doctor, "And tell those fuckin' nurses to keep their fuckin' noses to their fuckin' selves!"
"Stop saying fuck," I said as he slammed the door closed with the side of his foot. "God, maybe you need to get laid."
"What I need," he said, his anger retreating off his face and leaving him as an overly tired nineteen-year-old boy, "is a doctor to actually know what he's talking about."
Cody had problems, too: asthma and an overwhelming sense of not giving up. He was the sole person still rejecting Dr. Greenwood's, "There is nothing left for us to do." I both loved and pitied him for it.
"Do those exist?" I asked as I took the soda from his hands. Dr. Pepper. It made me smile to see just how well Cody knew me, the little sister whose birth he once tried to protest.
"Sometimes I wonder."
He pulled the fries out of the bag first. They looked hot and greasy, everything that was good for my taste buds, but not for the rest of me. Then he revealed the sandwich. Patties, cheese, onions, and lets not forget about the bacon. My heart would have stopped if it wasn't so eager to pump those calories through my bloodstream.
"Lord have mercy," I said, placing my hand with a flourish over that beating organ. "Cody, if incest wasn't illegal and gross, I would marry you."
"A thank you would have sufficed," he said, but he was smiling. Of course, it was no longer the smile I remember growing up with, no longer teeth and dimples.
I want to live.
I want to live because I want to see that smile again.
Stealing a handful of fries, Cody sat down next to the bed. I knew he had probably spent the entire day running around, stocking shelves, and avoiding pesky customers. He was always tired now, juggling work, college, and his dying, little sister.
"Elsie says hello, by the way."
Elsie was his girlfriend, a pretty blonde that could do rocket science, if only in her head. But Cody didn't like women. I knew that. Still, he threw insults and slander at those who weren't too afraid to be themselves. It made him feel better to reduce others to shit.
Our mother was a Baptist woman, though, with a Bible tucked under her arm as she dragged us to church every Sunday. Homosexuals had no place in her world, except in hell. Our father only attended church when our mother threatened him with the Devil, but he still complained loudly when he saw people marching around, preaching gay rights. Cody had to share their views because if he didn't, he wouldn't be allowed to be their son anymore.
"They're sinners, and you're better than them," my mother said.
"They're all going to burn in hell," my father said.
"They're all a bunch of fuckin' faggots," my brother said.
"I want to live," I said.
I want to live because I want to see him okay.
"Do you love her?" I asked after taking a few large bites of my burger. It was those questions that got under the skin, too deep for any amount of scratching to vanquish.
He looked at me from the corner of his eye, one dark eyebrow raised. "Dunno," he said as he stole the rest of my fries. "But Mom thinks I should marry her."
I picked off a piece of bacon. "But you won't." My words were slow, careful. Matters like this always made him angry, and an angry Cody wasn't interested in ill Ericka's health.
Cody paused, twisting a fry around. "I love her like I love you," he confessed to the fast food, "as a sister."
I pretended to drown the rest of my words in Dr. Pepper, but if I was being honest, I didn't know what else to say. I only had a limited number of chances to have a serious conversation with my brother, but I didn't think I could.
I want to live.
I want to live because I want to tell him exactly what I think.
He looked up, and I wanted to press my fingers to the shadows that had spread themselves beneath his eyes. I wanted to tell him that it would be all right, but he stood up and slid his arms around me, resting his chin on my shoulder. I didn't think it was comfortable, but he stood there anyways. "It will be okay," he said, as if the words thought his teeth were prettier than mine. "They'll find a way to save you." Those words were spoken like a secret. They were also a lie.
The biggest lie since, "No one wants to die."
I gripped the yellow fabric of his shirt, a weak attempt to keep him from leaving me. My eyes were hurting, but I told him, "I want to live."
And he was listening.
"I want you to live, too."
I want to live because I want him to keep holding me.
But I let him go, and he pulled away, no longer offering me a false smile. Then he asked what no one else ever did: "What is the difference between wanting to live and not wanting to die?"
I pushed the tray away, my burger half uneaten, and made room for him on the bed. The nurses wouldn't approve, but Cody sat next to me anyways. We were shoulder to shoulder, and I could tell that his mind drifting someplace else. Did he notice the way he plucked at my wristbands? The gauntness of my wrists, however, was something that has been bothering him for months.
We were only three years apart, but he still made faces into my closest whenever I couldn't sleep. They always made me laugh, but he swore they frightened away demons and devils and little girl evils. I believed him because it was his job to comfort me. Even now, in this stark white room with its pictures of artificial happiness, that was what Cody was trying and failing to do. Although we want to think differently, no amount of funny faces or bacon could scare a tumor away. Tumors didn't have to go bump in the night, because when the daylight comes, they are a whole lot more terrifying.
Tumors remind me of truth.
I want to live.
I want to live because I want to be the one to comfort him.
But I was dying.
And not dead yet.
I gripped his fingers and smiled at him. The way he looked at me told me that it was a mirror of his own, no longer what it used to be. I smiled on, though, hoping I could make my words come out right. Words were notorious for falling off the tongue the wrong way and causing emotional explosions.
"Why do you assume there's a difference? Maybe I just want to be a pain in the ass."
Strike, small word bomb dropped over Mt. Cody.
He squeezed my fingers, frowning. "Don't do that. What's the difference?"
I sighed and leaned against him. "There isn't, really. They both mean pretty much the same thing, only you'll have to look in different parts of the dictionary to figure that out. But saying I don't want to die is like saying I don't want to go to heaven and I don't want to meet God."
"Isn't 'I want to live' just a more positive way of saying the same thing?" A pause. "You want to meet God?"
"Of course I do. I need to ask if He still loves you." It was a serious statement, but he took it as a joke, a jibe at all the times he said fuck in polite company. "Now, sush, let me finish. Anyone can say that they don't want to die. I want to live... That's something only the dying can say. I want to live, Cody. I want to graduate. Maybe I want to go to college or meet a boy and get married. Maybe I want to flick off our pastor and get knocked up." He was giving me that look, his eyebrows drawn together and his pinched lips. But he wasn't enough like our mother to scold me, to tell me that the Devil himself was whispering in my ear. "But mostly, I want more time."
With his free hand, he reached up and pressed his fingers against my forehead. They were warm and full of memories, memories of all the nights I pretended that there were three-legged tooth monsters under my bed just so I could join him in his.
"Time to do what?" he asked.
"To sabotage a condom, of course."
Mt. Cody was under fire.
"Ericka." Like mother or not, he was still had the amazing ability to adopt the edge of her voice.
"To live. To make all I've done right with God." I looked up at him. His eyes were always the greenest when he was sad, when tears were threatening to show his weakness. There was a beauty in his weakness. Or, maybe, despite his weakness, there was beauty. There was beauty in him, even if he, our parents, and the world disagreed.
The beauty was that God loved him anyways.
"Mostly to see you all right," I added.
"I'm fine, it's you who needs to be okay." Then suddenly his demeanor changed, his shoulders stiffened and his eyes narrowed. "What the fuck do you want?"
There was a nurse standing in the doorway. Her scrubs were covered in happy images, Snoopy and Woodstock, but her expression matched a mother's at her wit's end. "This is the pediatric wing. I already had parents complaining about your language. You need to leave."
"Because... I said fuck." He pulled away from me and slid off the bed. The mattress held his shape.
"No," the woman snapped, her arm crossed. I vaguely remembered her name being something like Lucy or Louie. "Because visiting hours ended ten minutes ago."
Cody turned towards me, a smile tugging on his face. It was fabricated, tainted with anger towards the woman. Anger I felt was uncalled for, but I already learned that telling him would only cause more problems. Sometimes it felt like you had to keep a leash on your words and walk around on your toes when he was around, even while he was boasting that he was invincible. Especially when he was boasting. So I said nothing and returned the smile.
He leaned forward and wrapped his arms around my narrow shoulders, dropping his voice and saying the same words he had said every night since he was told hope was but dust in the wind. "Don't die tonight. I still need you."
Then he was gone. The nurse was a few steps behind, eyeing the back of his head. She probably expected him to shout profanities just to spite her. I didn't blame her.
I settled back, feeling Cody's left over warmth. "You can't die tonight," I told myself. I knew, though, that I would die no matter how much my elder brother needed me.
I want to live.
I cried because I already knew that I wouldn't.