I smile back, sadly, because she doesn’t understand, and I don’t have the heart to explain. It’s just the two of us in the room, a sterile box with blank walls—empty canvas. Suddenly I can see her fingers, smudged with paint, holding some picture she made me for a past birthday—an explosion of colors bleeding into the grooves of her fingerprints, underneath her fingernails, staining her skin like nebulae against universe. She looks at me with tired eyes and, for a moment, her smile falters.
“Don’t let me fall asleep,” she says. She’s so small beneath the covers with only her thin arm resting above them, stuck and riddled with needles and tubes. It’s hard to look at her, to see her so diminished, but I can’t bring myself to leave her.
“But sleep is good for you,” I say, sitting on the edge of her bed. She gives me a look, a quizzical, almost exasperated expression—a ghost of her former self shining through. “You know what I mean,” she says, her voice soft. I open my mouth to tell her I don’t, not really, but I stop myself.
“What’s this?” I say instead. She glances at me. “You said you want to be awake for ‘this.’ What is it?”
She turns away again, dark eyes out the window where a patch of blue sky and the tips of a tree can be seen. “This,” she says, and then to me, “and you. The sky and the trees. Your voice. Mommy and Daddy. All of this. I’d paint it if I could, to remember, but….”
I wait for her to finish, and when she doesn’t, I say, “We’ll all be here when you wake up. You can take a nap—the doctor says you should.” She turns away from me again, back to the window where a hummingbird, small and erratic, flies by. I see her mouth twitch—a small smile, bright eyes, and I want to look away.
We fall into silence and I want to break it, but something tells me not to—tells me to let her have this moment. I hear footsteps behind me, turn my head, and see the nurse standing in the doorway with a tray in her arms. She smiles at me, but I don’t return it.
“Alright, little lady, you ready for this?” My sister grimaces as the nurse comes forward, places the tray beside her bed. She sits up as the nurse readies the syringe and I turn my face to wall. I hear an intake of breath and my sister’s soft voice speaking in unison with the nurse:
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven…”
When they reach twenty, the nurse says loudly, “Alright! You did wonderfully, sweetie. How do you feel?”
“I’m all right,” my sister says, but she sounds weak, as if she’s had all the wind knocked out of her.
“Lie back,” the nurse says. I turn and see her gently pushing my sister back against the pillows. Her face is pale and ashen and I think stupidly of ghosts. As the nurse bustles past me, she tells me my parents will be back soon and to keep talking to her. “It helps so much,” she says, her hand on my shoulder. Before I can reply, she’s gone, and my eyes rest on my sister—eyes closed, lying so still.
I step forward and call her name. She turns, ever so slightly in the direction of my voice, eyes fluttering. I call her again, and then again, and again until her eyes are fully opened. Unfocused, she looks at me and I, afraid to touch her, try to smile.
“Wake up,” I say. “You told me to keep you awake.”
She turns her head again. “No,” in a whisper. “Just don’t let me fall asleep.”
I frown at her and I can feel my eyes burning. “But—,”
“Don’t let me fall asleep,” she says again, closing her eyes, head sinking into pillow, and I finally understand what I thought she didn’t.