Jared Oaks isn't just confronted with his mortality---he must face his sister's grief.
Mandy's anguished sobs paralyzed Jared. They put up an invisible barrier, locking him out in the hall. Everything in him screamed that he should go to her, but his feet refused to budge. Through watery eyes, he watched Mandy lean forward and rest her cheek against his shoulder, the only visible part of his body. He pivoted around and bit a knuckle to hold back his tears. Stepping into that room would bring reality, unrelenting and cold, crashing down around him.
“Ignoti nulla cupido,” he whispered, pacing in front of the door.
“Ignorance may be blissful, but it won't change matters,” his double said. In the glass, his image emerged, dark and foreboding. Shadows played across it, adding pointed angles to its features. They made its visage pale, almost white outside the dark eyes piercing into Jared acutely, as if reading his soul. “You still have to face what is in that room, whether you like it or not.”
“Leave me alone,” Jared said glumly. He glared at it before turning his back.
The cool wood of the doorjamb kissed his forehead as he watched his sister lean up to kiss his body's cheek. He brushed rough fingertips over the corresponding spot, imagining the warmth of her touch. His teeth dug deep into soft lips. The tang of copper flooded his mouth, evidence that he had split it in the process. A sigh stuttered out, and Jared's eyes fluttered closed. He smacked an open palm against the wall, his hand sliding down the smooth surface. It fell harmlessly against his side, clenched into a tight fist.
The upbeat melody of the Jeopardy theme song floated through the hallway in his own voice. It taunted, malicious and cruel. Jared didn't have to turn around to know that his strange double wore a wicked grin and an amused sparkle in its eyes. It pierced him, demanding attention. No way would he give it that satisfaction.
Through gritted teeth, Jared asked, “Do you mind?”
“Angsting at it won't change matters, either, you know,” his counterpart replied.
Mandy wailed, low and mournful. He opened his eyes and saw that she had her face tucked into his shoulder, muffling the sound. It sliced deep into Jared. It crushed his heart, trampling it into shredded ribbons. Her sorrow rendered him powerless.
“Please, wake up, Jared. For me?” Mandy's soft voice washed over him, its vulnerabilities shattering him.
Jared turned, slumping to the floor. His knees drew to his chest, and his arms wrapped tightly around them. He buried his face into his arms, sobbing. Just hearing her voice, so small and afraid, made it real. His wails echoed in the hall, blending with his sister's to make a melancholy symphony.
“Oh God, I can't,” Jared said, rocking himself. He buried his face further. “I don't want to know. I can't go in there.”
“You must face this sometime. It isn't going away,” his hazy reflection said from its perch in the large bank of windows. The soothing tone of his own voice disturbed Jared. “Delaying it will only make it worse.”
“I can't,” Jared whispered.
“You must,” it answered.
He hadn't felt this helpless since their parent's accident. His sister had needed him just as much then. How could he face this? This wasn't like dealing with his injured sister and funeral arrangements for their parents. He laid in that hospital bed. Facing that meant facing his mortality. He didn't think that he could handle that.
“I'm scared.” He laughed, a hysterical edge twisting it. “I don't understand!”
“I know,” his double said softly.
“Please, don't let this Christmas be our last together,” Mandy whispered.
“She sounds like a scared little girl.” Jared ran a hand through his hair. “I can't. I can't go in there.”
“She does,” it said, narrowing its eyes at him. “That's precisely why you must go in there. Mandy needs you now---more than ever.”
“Who's going to spoil me with a Epiphany gift?” Mandy asked. Her voice wavered, teetering on the edge of another sob.
“You do spoil her.” A pensive frown crossed his double's ethereal features. “This year, you gave her the hand embroidered pillowcases your mother made for you---the one with your family crest---didn't you?”
“Yeah, but she's going to college now. It's right that she have them. Besides, she gave me a beautiful handmade journal,” Jared said. He narrowed his eyes and waved his hands dismissively at his reflection. “Never mind. I don't have to justify what my sister and I give each other for Christmas. It's none of your damn business.”
“I'm not asking you to.” It lifted a hand, pointing into the room. “You love her. That's clear in that gift you gave her. Now, you must go in there and be there for her---in whatever way you can.”
“I can't---,” he said. He convulsed as a sharp pain stabbed into the back of his skull. A high-pitched whine tore from his throat, and he slumped to lay on his side, seizing. His arms and legs jerked wildly, flopping out of his control. The pain exploded a hundred fold when his head smacked into the hard tile, and his vision blurred.
“Easy. Breathe.” The voice, his voice, sounded muffled. Between the blood rushing in his ears and the pain, it sounded far away. “It'll pass. You shouldn't have too many more of these episodes.”
He flopped on his back, his chest heaving as he panted. The harsh light stabbed into his eyes, and he cast an arm over his face to block it. The thud of his heartbeat roared in his ears. His body ached all over. The coppery taste of blood flooded his mouth, and he rolled on his side, spitting on to the floor. It spattered, dappling the white tile. He must have bitten his tongue during his seizure. Jared wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, a crimson smear rouging his skin.
“Jared, I'm so scared,” Mandy whispered softly. “This feels just like Mom and Dad.”
His head snapped up, and he said firmly, “No, it's not. I won't let it be.”
A trembling hand carded through his hair. Bracing himself against the wall, Jared shoved to his feet. Over his shoulder he saw that his sister had taken his body's hand into hers, her thumb rubbing small circles on the back of it. Jared took a deep shuddering breath and stepped into the room.
He crouched down next to his little sister, and rested a hand on her knee, his eyes trained upon her. He gave it a gentle squeeze and said, “Munchkin, I'm here.”
Mandy slumped in the chair, burying her face into her hands. She asked, “What am I supposed to do?”
“I don't know.” He tilted his head, blinking back tears. “What---what happened, Mandy? How did I get here?”
Mandy rested his hand against her cheek, interlacing their fingers. Her lip trembled, and her voice hitched as she said, “You know, you could have just said that you didn't want to watch the movie, Jared. You didn't have to be so over dramatic about it.”
Out of habit, Jared's eyes narrowed in disapproval. He chided, “That's not funny, Mandy.”
“No,” his double began. In the shiny stainless steel of the medical cabinets, Jared spotted his strange reflection. It ghosted over the slick surface, transparent and shadowy. “But the movie she wanted to watch was.”
“What? How do you know?” His eyes narrowed, and his lips drew into a tight disapproving line. He crossed his arms, tilted his head in its direction, and asked, “Well?”
“Think. You know Mandy. And I should know because I am you. We have the same face and everything.” It circled its face with a finger. A weary sigh puffed out its cheeks, and it said, “Don't you tell me that you're looking for a leopard.”
“How did you know?” he finished the line and smacked his forehead. “Duh. Bringing Up Baby. I swear, she'll always carry a torch for Cary Grant.”
“You've only seen it hundreds of times by now. I think you two recite it together at this point.”An amused smile crossed its lips. “He's dapper. Can you really blame the girl?”
“What? Dapper? Really?” Jared asked incredulously.
“I know. You don't think that it's funny,” Mandy said. Her voice pulled Jared's attention back to her.
He crouched down next to her again, and squeezed his sister's knee. He asked, his voice raw, “Can---can you hear me?”
Mandy laughed, the sound small and hollow. A sad smile twisted her lips into a grimace. “Okay. Admit it. It was a little funny.”
“No, Mandy. None of this is,” Jared said.
“What, where's your sense of humor?” his counterpart asked. “She told you that you were being dramatic, and yet you were going to watch a comedy. I think Alanis Morrisette would call it ironic, don't you think?”
“You---,” Jared began. He stood, steadying himself by gripping the back of Mandy's chair. He thrust a finger at the spectral image. “She can't even see or hear me. How am I supposed to help her if she doesn't know I'm here?”
“You're right. She can't see you.” It slanted its head to one side and pursed its lips in thought. “But she could.”
“What? How?” Jared asked, his brow crinkling.
“Through me,” it answered.
An alarm trilled, shattering the quiet of the room. Jared jumped back, falling on his backside. He rested his weight on his elbows and turned wide eyes towards the hospital bed. His jaw went slack, and he stared, transfixed by the screaming machine.
“No!” Mandy screamed and shot up from her chair. Her hood fell to rest about her shoulders. “Don't you dare do this to me, Jared.”
A petite red-haired nurse entered the room. She shut off the alarm and unhooked the IV bag. She detached it from the line feeding into his body's arm. The nurse took another full bag, swishing it from side to side before attaching it. She checked the line, making certain that the solution flowed properly to his body.
Jared's eyes followed the clear line from the machine to his body's arm. Wires came from everywhere. Soft clicks filled the room with persistent noise as the IV dripped. Machines crowded the bedside, monitoring everything from his heart to his blood pressure to his temperature. He gasped upon seeing the breathing tube shoved down his body's throat. A soft buzz followed by a mechanical breath repeated every ten seconds.
“Is---is he alright?” Mandy asked as she twisted her hands together.
He lifted his eyes to his body's face, as unreal as that action seemed. The grayish-green hospital gown made his normal olive tone ashen. The five o'clock shadow that his body's face sported made Jared self-conscious. The mole by his nose stuck out in stark relief. How he hated that beauty mark. His dark hair billowed around his head like a halo on the pillow.
The nurse turned towards Mandy, a reassuring smile on her freckled face. She said, “His IV drip just needed changing, that's all.”
At six-foot-five, his frame nearly engulfed the bed. It looked as if he didn't fit. His feet dangled off the edge, poking out from underneath the blue blanket. The gown puckered, straining around his broad chest and muscular arms. Separated from himself as he was, Jared realized that Mandy was right. He was a giant.
“Now it's real,” his reflection whispered. A somber expression crossed its face.
“Oh,” Mandy said and looked towards the floor. Her wavy hair cascaded down to obscure her face. In a small, shaky voice, she asked, “Are you sure?”
Mandy didn't sound like the capable young woman Jared knew her to be. She didn't sound like someone about to go to Boston University on a full scholarship. She sounded like a little girl. It broke his heart.
He moved closer to his sister. Even if it seemed useless, he whispered, “It'll be alright, Mandy. We'll be driving to Boston soon enough. You'll like how the Century handles the road, and I'll follow you the whole way.”
The nurse nodded and said, “I'm sure. Just page me if you need anything.”
“Thank you,” Mandy replied.
The nurse left the room.
His sister slumped back down in the chair and rocked slowly with her arms wrapped tightly around her torso. “Please. Don't leave me, big brother.”
“Hey.” Jared pushed himself to stand. He closed the gap between them, and gently grasped her shoulders. He hunched down, eye level with Mandy. A concerned expression etched lines into his forehead and a frown settled on his lips. He said, “Hey now. I don't intend to. Look at me, Mandy.”
“Stand up and let her see you, Jared,” his counterpart said.
Jared did as told, seeing his reflection become more vibrant.
Mandy's eyes lifted and went wide. She asked, “Jared?”
“Yes. I'm right here, munchkin. I'm not going anywhere. I promise,” he said with conviction.
A stuttered laugh escaped Mandy. She said, “I'm seeing things. I have to be.”
“No, you're not. I'm here,” Jared said, putting a hand on her shoulder. He squeezed gently. “Feel that?”
His sister pulled from his grasp and crossed to the steel cabinets. She ran a hand across them. “This isn't real. It's in my head. You're not really showing up here. You're not.”
“Oh, sure, now she thinks that she's losing her mind.” Jared crossed his arms and glared at his double. He said, “This is a great plan.”
"What, did you really think little sister would simply accept your image in the cabinets without some doubts?” it asked. “Come on now. Give her a chance to acclimate to it.”
A pained smile crossed Mandy's lips. She brushed fingers over the steel, right over his reflection's heart. A soft sigh escaped her and she whispered, “I miss you, moose.”
His reflection looked more tangible, solid in the slick surface. A soft expression crossed its features, along with a warm smile. Dimples appeared at the corners of its mouth. Despite the smile, tears stood in its eyes. It opened its arms, welcoming Mandy into its embrace. His sister slumped against the cabinets, beating her fists into his reflection's chest.
Jared rushed over and grasped her shoulders. He kissed her temple and nuzzled his nose into her hair. His voice wavered as he sang, “I can't give you anything but love, baby.”
Mandy pulled back and took deep breaths. Her eyes remained trained upon the steel cabinets. She sang, her voice barely above a whisper, “That's the only thing I have plenty of, baby.”
“Yes, yes, just like in rehab, munchkin,” Jared said. He kissed her temple, smoothing a hand over her wavy hair. He sang, his voice a bit stronger, “Dream awhile, scheme awhile, you're sure to find happiness.”
“I feel so stupid doing this---especially seeing you like this. My mind's playing games. I swear I can almost hear you sing with me. Almost.” Mandy looked up towards the ceiling. She sighed, her breath hitching. Her voice cracked as she picked up the next line. “And I guess, all those things you've pined for.”
“That's it. Come on. Let's finish now,” Jared said, blinking back tears. He wrapped an arm around her waist in a loose hug. He raised his other hand, gesturing with it as if conducting. In the steel cabinet, his reflection mimicked the action. He continued the song, his baritone off-key, “Gee, it's great to see you looking swell, baby. Diamond bracelets Woolsworth's doesn't sell, baby.”
“I can't believe I'm singing this. I haven't sang it since my last PT,” Mandy said. She chuckled, the sound hollow and sad. She shook her head and sang, her soft soprano lilting, “Till that lucky day you darn well know, baby, I can't give you anything but love.”
“That's it. See? That always works.” Jared laughed. He leaned in and kissed her temple. “You're afraid to go to college, aren't you? That's why you wanted to watch Bringing Up Baby. It's always your comfort movie. I should have known.”
“Wishful thinking just doesn't cut it---no matter what I thought I heard.” Mandy lowered her gaze. She ran a hand across the slick surface, leaving her fingerprints behind. “It just wasn't the same without you singing, too, Jared.”
He let his arms drop to his side. It was no use. She hadn't heard him. Jared bowed his head as tears flowed freely down his cheeks.
“I'm right here, Mandy,” Jared whispered brokenly. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and turned his back. He shook his head, snorting.“She sang her parts just like she did in rehab, nothing more.”
“No. She may not have heard you, but you helped her more than you'll ever know. Because that song is right. You really can't give Mandy anything more than your love.” His own voice curled in his ears. “Singing that song with you has always given her strength. You give her that strength.”
Silence settled over the room, suffocating Jared. He glanced over at Mandy, and took a stuttering breath. He wiped away the tears with the heels of his palms, a harsh chuckle escaping him. He said weakly, “Yeah, I really gave her strength. Go me.”
It didn't escape him that he stood only three feet away from his sister, and yet the distance seemed so vast.
“I have a confession to make, Jared,” Mandy said. She sat back down into the chair with a thud and took his body's limp hand into hers, squeezing it. “While I was waiting for them to tell me what room you were in, I stopped in the chapel. You'd really like it.”
Jared's eyebrows arched and he crossed his arms. His lips pursed into a thin frown. “And no one had to drag you there, kicking and screaming?”
“You can stop with the pinched look of disbelief anytime, you big moose,” Mandy said, her chair scraping on the floor as she moved it closer to the bed. Her gaze lifted, trained upon the silver cabinets. “I paced in front of it for ten minutes, debating if I should even go inside.”
Jared emerged from the corner and crouched down next to his sister. His eyes searched her tear streaked face, and he cupped her knee with his hand, brushing a circle on it with his thumb. “So what made you go in?”
Mandy leaned back in her chair, letting go of his hand. She buried her face into her palms. She snorted, the sound harsh and bitter. “You know how I feel about churches in general. I---I just don't find it all that comforting to hear that God has this 'mysterious' plan and that things happen for a reason. But you already know that.”
“Yeah. You've told me. More than once,” Jared replied.
“Understatement of the year,” his reflection said, piping in its two cents. “Oh, and she nailed your current expression just right.”
“No one asked you,” Jared retorted. He glared at his double. “I also don't wear pinched looks of disbelief, either.”
“Touchy.” It smirked. “Admit it. The narrowed eyes, the knit brows, the lips pulled so tight they almost disappear. You're so wearing that face right now. Can't you feel the pinch?”
“Shut up.” Jared turned his back on it.
“I still don't really know why I went in. I saw this beautiful St. Francis statue. You'd really love it. It has this wonderful Latin saying carved on it.” Mandy twisted her hands in her lap. “I guess I went in because of you, Jared. I know that St. Francis is your favorite saint. You're always wearing his medallion.”
Jared pulled at the chain around his neck. He almost never took it off. So familiar was its weight at the hollow of his throat that sometimes he forgot that it was there. He ran his thumb over its surface, looking at its image. St. Francis stood, arms wide in benediction while the animals surrounded him. Jared read the phrase around the rim aloud, “Lord, make me an instrument of Your Peace.”
“I---,” Mandy began. Her lip trembled as fresh tears fell. She hugged herself and rocked. “I went in because I wanted to feel closer to you, Jared.”
He let go of his talisman, the small disc settling back into place. He rubbed Mandy's knee, cupping it. “I'm right here, Mandy. I don't intend on going anywhere, but I really need your help. You have to hear me.”
“In a way, I believe she does,” his reflection said softly.
Mandy shoved the chair back and stood. She ran her hands through her hair and turned her back towards the hospital bed. “It didn't make me feel anything but anger. I didn't really feel like I was any closer to you. And then, then I saw that.”
Jared stood and cautiously approached his little sister. He could tell that she teetered on the edge of a meltdown. He rubbed small circles on her shoulder and asked, “What did you see?”
“Just thinking about it---I just don't understand.” Mandy began to pace, her eyes cast towards the ceiling. She stopped, directly in front of his counterpart. “How could they just forgive like that? After what happened?”
Jared's brow furrowed and then shot up in recognition. He said, “You saw the votive with the little boy, didn't you? That's what this is all about.”
“Here's your chance to be heard. Write a message for her,” his double said.
“What?” Jared asked.
“Breathe on the steel, dummy,” it replied curtly.
Jared rushed over and did as told. He bit his lip, scrambling for something to say to Mandy. Mind made up, he scrawled quickly, in Latin, “In Ignoscendo ignoscimur.”
“Now I know I'm seeing things. This, this can't be real. It can't,” Mandy said. Her fingers hovered over the words, trembling. “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,” his sister translated. Her eyes went wide and then narrowed. Violently, she shook her head. Her hands clenched tightly to her sides. “No. Those bastards just ran that little boy over---and they got away with it. How could this family even think to forgive something like that? I just can't do that.”
“Mandy---,” Jared said, closing the distance. He gripped his sister's shoulder. It slipped from his grasp as she passed by.
Mandy bowed her head, her shoulders shaking as she sat back down in the chair. She rocked herself as a new batch of sobs wracked her petite frame. “I can't. I won't. Not this. Never!”
Jared crossed his arms, sighing. He said, “Come on, Mandy. You know that holding onto that grudge will only make it fester. You're only hurting yourself.”
“I can smell it festering from here.” His double's nose wrinkled. “She might want to get that looked at. You know, before it turns into mental gangrene or something.”
“You think you're really funny, don't you?” Jared asked, sighing in exasperation.
“No. I think you're really funny,” it retorted. “Witty word play is really your thing.”
“Why are you being such a jackass?”
“Hey, I'm you, and this is what you're thinking, deep, deep down. Not my fault,” it replied.
“You're lying,” Jared accused.
“Am I?” The strange counterpart winked. Its lips formed into a piteous pout and its eyes became soft. Its shoulders hunched and it shoved hands into its pockets. “Besides, would this puppy dog face lie to you?”
A soft knock made Mandy jump. She stood and turned to face the doorway. A doctor entered, his expression grim. He held a chart in his hands. “Miss Oaks?”
“Uh oh. I foresee someone's doom being foretold!” his reflection said.
Jared's lips locked into a thin line of disapproval, and he narrowed his eyes in ire. “You are not helping.”
“Oh, I earned a full on pinched look for that one,” it said, pumping a fist into the air.
“Yes?” Mandy asked.
“Can you come with me a moment? The test results have come back,” the doctor replied.
“Score. I called it!” His reflection winked and held up a hand, palm open. “What, no high-five? You're no fun.”
Jared turned his back, focusing his attention back on his sister.
Mandy bent down towards the hospital bed, and gave his body's hand a squeeze. She nodded and said, “Alright.”
Jared followed them to a small conference room. The doctor closed the door behind them with a soft click. He gestured towards the plush chair, which Mandy lowered herself into. Sitting down across from her, the doctor folded his hands on the table.
“Miss Oaks,” the doctor began, his voice low. “The blunt force trauma that your brother sustained has caused massive brain damage. Both the swelling and bleeding are catastrophic.”
“What---what does that mean, exactly?” Mandy asked, a quaver in her voice.
“There's nothing we can do, I'm afraid.” The doctor flipped open the chart, showing the results of the MRI. “There is absolutely no brain activity. When this occurs, it means that the patient is declared brain-dead. The blow that your brother endured struck the base of his brain stem, cutting off all the blood flow. That has completely starved his brain of oxygen.”
“Is---is there any hope for recovery?” Mandy looked down, tears spilling down her cheeks.
Jared moved to stand by his sister, his hand on her shoulder. He said firmly, “Don't give up, Mandy. I can't be brain-dead. He's wrong.”
“I'm afraid not. Once someone is declared brain-dead, there is nothing that will revive them. Because your brother has no living will, as the next of kin it is up to you if we continue his life support or not. It will not change his condition. He will not improve.”
“No!” Jared shouted. He crouched down next to his sister, placing his hand over one of hers on the table. “I don't believe him. You shouldn't either. Don't you dare listen to him. I can come back. I will!”
Mandy scrubbed her face with her hands. She asked quietly, “When do you need my decision?”
“Take your time.” The doctor gave her a sympathetic smile. “I'm sorry that I don't have better news.”
The doctor stood and exited into the hallway.
Jared sat in the now vacant chair. He said, “Don't end my life support, Mandy. I'm begging you. I'm not ready. I need time to get back to you. I can recover. I can! You've gotta let me.”
Mandy cried, rocking herself. “Oh God. How am I supposed to make this decision? What is the right one?” She looked towards the ceiling, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. “How am I supposed to say goodbye to you?”
“Goodbye?” Jared asked. He stood, shoving away from the table. “You can't! I'm not ready. You're not ready. You can't do this!”
The pain exploded behind his eyes, white and hot. Before it could overwhelm him, Jared dropped to a crouch, grasping his head. He hissed as it flooded his senses. He rocked himself slowly, hoping to ease the intensity.
A low cry pierced the quiet of the room. It took a moment for Jared to realize that it had come from him. His body jerked uncontrollably, and he curled into a tight ball. It felt like someone had shoved a knife into the back of his head and was now twisting it ruthlessly. Blackness rimmed the edges of his vision. Blinking, Jared focused on his sister, trying to fight off this latest seizure.
As quickly as the attack came, it ended. He crumpled into a quivering heap on the cold floor and panted, fighting off the nausea that threatened to consume him. He squeezed his eyes shut, the room spinning. In his temples, he felt his heart beat a steady rhythm. He took deep breaths through his nose, trying to calm himself.
“At least you know why your head feels like it wants to split into two now,” his double said, smirking up at him from the floor.
Jared looked up towards Mandy. “Please---help me.”