Any moment now, the heart machine would go silent and Hannah would die. Ben listened with his eyes closed. With every beep, he held his breath in a silent prayer that the next would sound. One hand gripped his knee, the other his little sister’s fingers. Cold. It felt like if he squeezed hard enough, they would shatter.
Four years ago, he had been told Hannah wouldn’t live to see her fourteenth birthday. She was born with a weak heart. That’s what the doctor claimed. And just like that, he wrote off her future as if she never had one to begin with. Every doctor Ben had called said the same, that she was lucky to have lived for so long. Lucky.
When her fourteenth birthday came, he smashed apart the jar under his bed labeled ‘Hannah’s College’. If she were to have a last birthday, she was going to get a real cake, a clown, and a place big enough for all her friends. It cost three hundred and fifty dollars, or twenty hours of holiday shifts.
When her sixteenth birthday came, he started saving again. He didn’t buy a new jar, instead, he took the old one to get repaired. He found a glass repairman and when he was told it wouldn’t be worth the effort, he bought some glass glue and did it himself. Though the lettering was now off, it still read ‘Hannah’s College’ in faded black. He worked a double overnight shift to start it off.
The jar was still under his bed. It held just over four hundred dollars in it. By the way things were going, he’d have to smash it again before her seventeenth birthday.
Ben yawned and checked his watch. 2:30. Soon, the sun would be up. He wondered when Hannah would be as well.
THREE DAYS AGO
“You went over your texting limit again.” Ben poked his fork toward Hannah, a piece of broccoli still at the end of it. He sat opposite to Hannah at a small wooden table inside their apartment. “That’s another ten bucks that comes out of your allowance.”
“Ten dollars is my allowance.” Hannah said with a musical chuckle. “Sorry that I’m so popular.”
“You can’t afford to be popular.”
She coughed out a laugh, spilling bits of broccoli back onto her plate. “You know,” she said with a sly grin. “Brian offered to buy me a smart phone. But I have to go on a date with him.”
“Hannah,” Ben said. “I don’t even know what that is.”
“It just came out. Apparently, it’s the phone of the future.”
“Sounds fancy. Maybe you can pawn it to pay me back for all the times you went over your texting limit.”
Hannah swooned in place. “Oh Brian,” she cried out. “Won’t you save me from my crippling debt?”
Ben rolled his eyes. “Maybe he can pay for your texting. He can have your medical bills too. Hell, he can take you.”
That seemed to be Hannah’s cue. As soon as the words left Ben’s mouth, her eyes teared up in an expression only a little sister could master. “But Benny, you payed for my heart.” She looked away as if embarrassed and her voice came out in barely a whisper. “Technically, it’s yours.”
“Don’t try to be cute with me. You’re paying for every message that goes over your limit. Little sister.”
“Fine.” Hannah crossed her arm, her eyes no longer wet. “You know what I’ll do? I’m going to get one of those delayed texting apps so I can just schedule my responses for when I have more texts to send. Until then, all my friends can just wait.”
“I’m sure Brian’s going to be crushed.”
“Shut up.” Despite Hannah’s best efforts, a small smile spread across her lips.
“Hey,” Ben said, this time serious. “Remember what day it is tomorrow. It’s about time we pay mom and dad a visit. I can pick you up after school. I’ll buy the flowers.”
“Don’t worry, I remember.” Hannah managed a weak smile. “Just text me when you arrive.”
TWO DAYS AGO
It wasn’t that the gravestones were disheveled, they were well-kept, but there just wasn’t much to work with. The stones were cheap, they had to be for Ben to afford them. After four years of rain, they had already started showing some wear. One stone read Melissa O’Brien, the other, Connor O’Brien.
Between the two stones were Ben’s flowers. White lilies. Before the car accident, they had been his mother’s favorites. His father didn’t care for flowers so Ben figured that lilies were best. Though he hoped his mother hadn’t gotten bored of them by now.
Everything was neat. Not a single blade of grass stuck taller than the rest and no tree disturbed the planeness of the land. The tombstones stood like soldiers at attention, perfectly in line, perfectly still. Even their shadows were neatly spaced.
Hannah wiped her eyes with a quivering arm and bit her lip.
“I thought you weren’t going to cry this year.” Ben looked toward the gravestones. “You don’t have to stop yourself, I think it’s pretty normal to cry.”
“Then why aren’t you?” Hannah shuddered and with a deep breath, swallowed her tears.
A slight breeze caressed the tips of her hair.
“You ready?” She asked, a shot of whiskey in her hand.
The whiskey was Hannah’s idea. If they started with something for their mother, they should end with a gift for their father. Even though she wasn’t of drinking age, Ben had agreed. A shot for both of them and the bottle for dad.
Together they swung their heads back and downed the liquor. All that was left to do was wait. Neither had more to say, but tradition dictated staying until the sun was gone.
Ben laid flat on the grass, following clouds with his eyes. He watched until they turned a deep shade of orange with splashes of purple streaked across. It looked like wisps of smoke with the occasional spot of blue sky. The shadows from the tombstones stretched until they grasped Hannah.
Hannah propped her back up with her arm. It was her who first broke the silence.
“Hey Ben,” she said. “Do you ever think about going to college?”
Ben turned his head, too content to lift it. “Hannah, it’s hard enough just to get you to college.”
“But you don’t ever think about going back?”
“Nope.” And with that, Ben returned his gaze to the clouds. The only sound was the shush of grass beneath the wind. Once again, Hannah broke the silence.
“Are you happy?” She asked.
“What kind of question is that?”
“You were going to be a doctor.” Hannah tip-toed through every word, as if scared to startle him. “And now you’re working at a gas station.”
Ben didn’t respond.
“Ben.” Her voice held a tremble. “Be honest. Did you drop out because of me?”
Nothing he said would make her feel better, so he didn’t say anything. And though he kept his stare toward the sky, he could tell by the sound of slight whimpers that she was crying.
ONE DAY AGO
Hannah’s pea rolled down her plate. When it hit the bottom, she pushed it back up and watched it fall. Despite the pit in her stomach, she couldn’t get herself to eat. Everything felt off, her movements, her balance, even her breathing.
“Okay, fine. They’re a little overdone.” Ben said in exaggerated annoyance. He motioned at her plate. “But that doesn’t mean they’re inedible.”
“Ben, nothing you cook is edible.” Hannah managed a small smile.
“Hey! I worked hard on these peas.”
With a slight chuckle, she went back to playing with her vegetables. “Hey Ben, what do you think you’ll do after I go to college?”
“I was at the mall earlier and I saw they had a sale on textbooks. Just answer the question.”
“Well, with the grades you have, I’ll probably be slaving away to pay your tuition.”
“Let’s say I got a full ride somewhere.”
It was hard to suppress his chuckle. “As long as we’re playing pretend, I’d like to win the lottery.
Ben looked away to think. Slowly, he responded, “I’m not sure.”
Hannah looked up with a crescent grin. “You should come with me.”
This time, he couldn’t hold it back. Ben burst into laughter.
Hannah picked up a pea and rolled it between her fingers. With a single flick, she launched it into Ben’s face. “I’m serious. You should go back. Take classes, find a girlfriend, you know, normal twenty-year-old guy stuff.”
It took Ben several breaths just to calm down enough to speak. “We can share a dorm room together.”
“I’m not joking!”
“Me neither.” Ben said, still laughing.
Hannah smashed her palms onto the table and stood up, knocking her chair to the floor. Her glare honed into Ben’s eyes. “You have to promise me.”
Ben jumped in his chair, nearly falling to the floor. He stared wide-eyed. “What? Why?”
She had him. She knew because his bottom jaw hung open and he had the stupidest look on his face. With a grin that stretched off her face, she said, “Because I’m your little sister and I said so.”
“Fine. You get a full ride and we’ll go to college together.”
Hannah responded, but she couldn’t tell what she said. All she knew was that simply standing up had left her out of breath. Her arms shook, supporting the weight of her body. If it wasn’t for the table, she wouldn’t have been able to stand.
“Hey Ben,” she whispered wordlessly. “I don’t—.” Her knees collapsed and she hit the ground.
Ben awoke to a single high-pitched note.
“Doctor.” He scrambled up.
Hannah’s face was white, fingers cold.
Even her hair seemed faded.
“Help!” Ben flung the door open. Nobody. He stumbled into a blank hallway. “Someone. My sister. Help!”
A nurse came running, the pager by her side beeping wildly. She stepped into Hannah’s room and began chest compressions. A doctor rushed in after her, snapping orders along the way.
“Save her.” Ben whispered, his eyes wet. All he could do was watch.
He leaned against the wall as his trembling knees lowered him to the floor. Hannah was a small girl, though she would hate him for thinking it, she had always been frail. It looked like she was being crushed with every compression.
Three minutes later and it was over. The nurse sighed. The doctor shot Ben a furtive glance. Both shook their head and like a faraway echo, Ben could hear, “time of death…”
Ben bit into his knuckles as tears dripped down his cheeks. “Please.” His mouth moved, but no words came out. “Please.”
It had taken Ben several minutes to work up the courage to walk back into Hannah’s room. The girl inside wasn’t Hannah anymore, but she looked just like her. Same hair, same eyes, same everything. But Hannah was gone.
“Do you understand?” The doctor’s voice was steady and Ben hated him for that.
A slight twitch of the chin was all it took. The doctor gave him a slow nod. “We did all we could. I’m sorry for your loss. I’ll give you some time alone.” He said and left.
Now that Ben was inside, he couldn’t understand how anyone could walk out so casually. The door closed shut, leaving Ben alone with Hannah… rather, by himself.
He stepped toward her. “Hey Hannah,” he whispered, as if scared to wake her. But if noise was all it took, he would’ve crashed cymbals over her head until the dead awoke. He grabbed her hand, intertwining his fingers with hers. “I’m right here.”
She didn’t respond. Of course she wouldn’t.
“The doc said you wouldn’t live past fourteen, but you almost made it to seventeen. We sure kicked his ass, didn’t we?” Ben’s voice cracked and a whine escaped his throat. Every other breath came out in a huff, the rest he choked on.
“I’m so sorry Hannah,” Ben stuttered. “Maybe if your brother wasn’t just a fucking dropout, they would’ve tried harder. They would’ve given you a new heart, or a new drug, or something. I’m sorry I couldn’t do a damn thing.”
He closed his eyes, his shoulders shuddering through his cries. There wasn’t even a heart machine left to fill the silence.
The metal was cold. Ben gripped the brass doorknob to his home. No matter how hard he tried, his wrist wouldn’t turn.
He stared at the door, its red paint chipped in the corners. In the middle were three golden numbers: 261. He stared until his vision blurred and the numbered melded together into an indistinguishable glob of yellow. And still he couldn’t turn his wrist.
It had taken him two hours to leave Hannah’s room. Now that he did, all he wanted was to go back.
His phone buzzed in his pocket. He took it out and his jaw dropped. The screen showed a text from Hannah, it read: come find me.
Ben rubbed his eyes. The text was still there. His phone buzzed again.
i’ll give you a hint: i’m at home.
Ben’s heart skipped a beat. He twisted the doorknob and nearly swung the door off its hinges. “Hannah?” He sprinted in, stumbling over a toppled chair. His toe smashed against the wood, shooting fire up his leg. “Hannah!”
hint #2: my favorite room at home.
Ben scrambled into Hannah’s room. “Are you in here?” He opened the closet. The drawers. The desk cabinets. “Where are you?”
He yanked out his phone and held it to his face. He stared, waiting for his next hint. It buzzed.
final hint, just call me! ;)
Ben pressed the call button. He crushed his ear with his phone. It felt like he was listening to her heart rate monitor, beeping once again.
Something buzzed. It came from under Hannah’s bed. Ben dropped to all fours and pulled out a small cardboard box. He ripped it open. Inside was Hannah’s phone with one missed call.
He flipped open the phone and in dark blue letters, it said: Thank you for using the trial version of our scheduled messaging app. If you would like to purchase…
His arms fell to his sides. Hannah’s phone hit the ground. Ben let out a long and dreary sigh. A buzz. With tears already in his eyes, he slowly lifted up his phone.
Hey Ben, I can’t really explain it, but I don’t have much time left. I know it sounds corny, but I can feel it. Um… so a few things. First, if you haven’t figured it out, check under my bed! (I hope you’ve at least come this far)
Ben flashed a weary smile.
So I bet you’re feeling pretty sad. That’s okay, I’d be really mad if you weren’t. But seriously, DON’T STAY SAD. Just make sure you’re sad enough so I know you miss me.
Ben coughed out a small cry. He grit his teeth as tears poured from his eyes. He tried wiping the tears, but just as fast as he could get rid of them, they came back.
I wanted to tell you thanks for everything. I still remember my fourteenth birthday, I mean, you got me a god damn clown! I don’t think I’ve ever been more embarrassed. But I loved it. I think that was the birthday the doctor said I wouldn’t make it to. And look at us now, we sure kicked his ass, didn’t we?
Ben bit into his knuckles hard enough to draw blood. One arm quivered uncontrollably, the other completely still so he could read Hannah’s texts.
I’m literally crying right now. It’s hard to type because my fingers are shaking so hard. I can’t even see the screen so hopefully this isn’t all just typos and gibberish. Ben, I’m going to miss you so much. If we ever meet up in another life, will you be my big brother again? I love you, always.
Ben mashed the down key to keep scrolling, but there was nothing left to read. Still he hit it, again and again, slower and slower until at last he stopped. His gaze fell back down to the box.
Inside was a book, the same book he bought four years ago.
Introduction to Biology, First Edition.
On the side of the box, written in faded black…