A short fiction piece on love (and the most abnormal places we find it in). Synopsis: After their sister’s suicide attempt, Helen and Robert visit her in the hospital. In the hospital, the siblings are forced to come to terms with acceptance and moving on with their lives.
The hospital room was frigid at sixty-nine degrees. Dressed for the summer weather in a short, flowered skirt and white ruffled top, Helen clasped her hands together and blew into them.
“Jesus, it’s freezing in here,” Helen said in between blows of hot air within her hands.
Robert chuckled. “You should’ve dressed warmer.”
Helen glanced at her younger brother, dressed in a short-sleeved t-shirt and cargo pants. “Like you had any time to prepare. And, you know, they could be giving people pneumonia with it so cold in here. How are people supposed to get any better?”
Charlotte quietly watched her sister rant about the temperature from the hospital bed she sat upon. It was Helen’s poor and futile attempts at avoiding a topic she clearly did not feel comfortable discussing. The mixed, pungent scents of bleach, pine sol, and soup reminded the siblings where they were and why. A nurse walked into the room carrying a small, plastic tray of snacks and placed it beside the patient’s bed. Her polite smile was frozen in place amidst the awkward tension that it could have been mistaken for a symptom of insanity.
Charlotte clapped her hands together, silencing her sister.
“Well?” Charlotte asked.
Her siblings exchanged glances waiting for the other to speak. Helen gripped the strap of her black leather purse, and stiffly moved forward.
Helen hesitated for a moment. “Well, why did you do it?”
Helen, two years older, felt a great deal wiser than her sister. Unlike her brother, Helen was not as close to their sister but this fact did not affect their relationship.
Robert cleared his throat and shot his sister a look. Helen shot him one back and shrugged her shoulders. It was a situation that the two were not well equipped for, even after the first time many years ago.
“I suppose I thought it was the best solution,” Charlotte responded. Helen gave a quizzical look and opened her mouth. Robert interjected before words spilled out of Helen’s mouth.
“You don’t have to tell us anything if you don’t want to. It’s okay,” Robert said quickly.
“You know, I’ve read somewhere that foster children who are adopted have a higher percentage of mental illnesses, disorders, and suicidal thoughts,” Helen spoke up in a nervous, jittery voice.
Robert knew his older sister better than anyone. Inheriting their mother’s tendency to repress feelings, Helen rarely showed emotion and consistently blurted out odd facts when she was upset or uncomfortable. The last time he witnessed Helen under distress was during their father’s funeral when they were seventeen. He counted seven tears rolling down from her cheeks onto her black velvet dress. She wiped them with the back of her hand and immediately started rambling on about their father’s poor dietary habits, which contributed to his heart attack. Robert had not seen her cry since. Still, he couldn’t understand the casualness of her responses.
Robert slapped Helen on the shoulder before she could continue talking without filter. “Are you saying she’s a statistic?”
Helen shook her head. “No, I’m just saying it’s common.” She looked back at Charlotte who observed the scene quietly. “Obviously, I can’t say why this happened for certain, but I assume you’re unhappy, correct?”
Robert let out a loud and painful sigh.
Charlotte nodded and quietly responded, “I was unhappy, yes.”
Helen shot the distressed Robert a look before continuing. “Charlotte, we’re all unhappy at times. We can’t be in the same ecstatic mood all the time, it wouldn’t be normal if every single one of us wore a grin and were extremely happy. It’s okay to be sad just as much as it is to be happy. In fact, sometimes I feel more human when I’m emotional. All of it is normal — except this …” She moved in toward Charlotte and pointed at her heavily bandaged wrists. “This is not normal.”
Charlotte shoved her bandaged wrists underneath her sheets before sinking into them, her eyes popping out from underneath her thick bangs, staring at Robert as though he was her life raft in a vast lonely ocean. Robert had taken the role of mediator since the three were children; his tranquil energy calmed the siblings during tense situations and arguments. It was this same energy that helped convince their mother to adopt sweet Charlotte when she was ten.
“I just felt done. I fell down, picked myself up, tried, and tried, and I was done.” Charlotte stared straight through the window that allowed a large pool of sunlight to pour in and create a yellow transparent appearance on the linoleum flooring. Her response remained formal as though she had prepared her answer for months. “I came home around six, did some laundry, cleaned the apartment, and took a bath. I played some music and sat in the bathtub thinking. Just thinking for what seemed like hours. And when I came upon the idea of ending my life, it was … well, it was the happiest I had felt in months.”
Robert watched Charlotte’s reactions to her words. The detachment from her response to particular situations is what intrigued him the most about Charlotte. A ward of the state until she was eight, the siblings’ mother finally adopted her at the age of ten, through Robert’s constant begging. The two were the same age and became inseparable the second they met. Charlotte had always been quiet, observant, and precarious while Robert was outspoken and eccentric.
When the children were thirteen, out of curiosity, they shared a kiss. The two were sworn to secrecy but Robert had never forgotten and often longed for more as a teenager, which was a source of both confusion and interest in the unconventional. The two had been close before the kiss, and closer after. When she was sixteen, Charlotte confided her own distraught emotions to Robert, which only fascinated and enamored Robert even more. Since then, Robert had taken on his role as her protector and confidant much more seriously.
“Didn’t you think of anyone else? How selfish could you be? Did you not care about how we would feel about this? We, as a family unit? Me, Robert, Mom? I don’t even know what to say to Mother, I’ve just ignored her phone calls all morning.” Helen was hyperventilating as she spoke, taking in the impact of the situation. Robert put his arms over Helen’s shoulders and pulled her aside.
“Helen, she just woke up a few hours ago, let her be.”
Helen swiveled her body to face Robert. “She’s brought this on herself.”
“Maybe she has, but don’t make this about you.”
Helen’s eyes widened and filled with red hot fury. Charlotte rapidly blinked away the tears forming in her brown eyes and nervously twiddled her hands. Feeling a deep sense of shame and guilt, Charlotte was unable to form any sort of rebuttal and wanted her sister to leave the room.
“Helen, they have coffee in the cafeteria. They have a few different options and like fifty creamers if you want to go plain. Can you get me a cup?” Charlotte asked.
Helen opened her mouth to argue and closed it again. “Well — err — okay. I’ll pick some up. Need anything else?” She gripped the strap of her purse tightly, stone-faced.
Robert and Charlotte shook their heads simultaneously as they watched their sister storm out.
Robert pulled out an orange and brown scarf from a grocery bag and laid it out on the bed. “You said you were cold over the phone so I thought the scarf would help.” Robert smiled.
Charlotte removed the price tag, allowing it to flutter down onto the bed sheets, and wrapped the foot-long silk scarf around her neck. She looked odd sitting in her creamy blue dotted hospital gown splashed in a few drops of dry blood and fashioned with an orange and brown scarf — a reminder of the fall season.
Charlotte smiled. “You finally got new glasses. Let me take a look at them.”
Robert cautiously moved closer to the bed, sat down at the edge, and removed his dark horn-rimmed glasses. She withdrew her hands from underneath the blankets and placed his glasses on the bridge of her own straight nose. She observed the room.
“We still share the same prescription.”
Robert removed the glasses from his sister’s face. “Yes, but I actually wear my glasses.”
Robert lightly touched her bandages in which she responded with a quick flinch. She left her wrists there to be examined, fearless of his reactions or responses. He lifted the white gauze on her left wrist, and observed the thinly lined rivers of bright red that crossed in a unique design. He swallowed, feeling a large hard lump forming in his throat, and quickly looked away.
“You and Helen have issues showing emotion,” Charlotte responded after a moment.
“As do you. Is it bad?”
“The first thing I did when I woke up was look underneath the bandages. I’m sorry, you know. I become emotional and suddenly lose control. It makes me feel like I’m thirteen again.”
Robert observed his sister’s gem-colored eyes, light green pools of glossy emeralds, flashing with grief and despair. Her beauty absorbed most of her surroundings and surpassed many around her. The intelligence she carried, created, formed, and fueled by various literature struck him the most. Yet, it was her somber appearance that had captivated the young man. Her wistful outlook on life. Robert inched his way closer, lightly sitting between her two knees. The two locked eyes for a moment, and bashfully looked away.
“Why?” Robert asked. “Why’d you do it?”
Charlotte watched him as she spoke. “There were a lot of reasons. Everything had been building and building. I was a volcano about to erupt. I lost my job. My publisher’s dropped my second book option. Things with John, well, they’ve never been great. But, it was worse. Everything was worse. And, then you sent that letter.”
Robert avoided her eyes and fixated on a small crack on the floor. “Your phone calls, your letters, they were becoming harder to respond to. It wasn’t healthy for us.”
“You could have told me in person.” Charlotte’s face scrunched up and reddened. Tears rolled down her cheeks, speedily dripping onto the thin, hospital blanket. “You started to ignore every single letter, every single call I placed, for weeks. Helen told me you had moved and perhaps my letters were lost. So, I tried email. And those were never returned either. Then, one week ago, I received a letter in my mailbox. Written impeccably in your handwriting on that creamy stationary I’d purchased you years ago for your birthday, with no return address. You would’ve had to have driven down and delivered it in person. Just so I couldn’t find you.”
Robert looked up and stared at Charlotte. Unlike Helen, she was a vessel for emotions. When they were younger, a photograph of a neglected animal could produce hours worth of tears and a small argument with their parents could result in objects being viciously flung around the living room. She was unpredictable but it was one of the many reasons Robert cherished her. It was also one of the reasons he was afraid for her.
“Charlotte, you didn’t do this because of the letter, did you?”
“Don’t be so vain. The letter was merely a … a symptom of a larger issue.” Charlotte took in a deep breath and slowed down her crying. “It was everything else.”
Robert passed a box of Kleenex from the table to Charlotte and placed his hand on her knee. “I would have still come over for holidays and parties. I just can’t continue to have so much contact with you. It’s too difficult. This is too difficult. We’re supposed to be adults, move forward with our lives, and be normal. What we were doing … or trying to do … that isn’t normal.”
“Normalcy isn’t something I care for.” Charlotte blew her nose into a tissue and dabbed her eyes. Embarrassed, she looked away from Robert towards the window pane across from the hospital bed. The sunset glittered through the clear glass, bathing the floor in yellow light. “Love is all I ever craved and now I have to pretend it doesn’t exist.”
“That’s what John is there for. He loves you. He’s a stable man with a good job, and he cares a great deal for you. He’s what you need,” Robert said quietly.
Charlotte glanced back at her brother, her eyes swollen. “I don’t love him the same way. I didn’t even want him here once I knew you were coming. I asked him to go home and take a nap and come back when you guys left.”
Robert smiled. “See? You asked him to come back. You wouldn’t have done that if you didn’t love him.”
Charlotte sighed. “Of course I love him. But, it’s not the same. He isn’t who I want. And, if you really wanted to move on, you would have found someone. Even for company. And you haven’t.”
Charlotte met his gaze and the two locked eyes for a few moments. She grew warmer against the biting conditions of the room and as the tension between them boiled. She leaned in closer and pressed her lips against his. Resistant at first, Robert gave in and moved his lips against hers. The two shared an intimacy that only they could understand. They had never shared their feelings, their history with another soul. It was their heavy, painful secret. The kiss was soft at first and increased in urgency and want. The two pushed against each other and pulled away abruptly when footsteps were heard outside the door.
Robert leapt off the bed and waited for the door to open. The footsteps continued to pass the door and walk into another room.
Robert touched his bottom lip, feeling starved. He moved closer to Charlotte’s bed and stopped himself.
“This — this is what I’m talking about. Stealing kisses and glances like we’re thirteen again. We can’t do that anymore. You have a husband who’s talking about kids. And you’re still considered, you know, family,” Robert said the word ‘family’ in a hushed whisper, filled with guilt and shame, like it was a dirty word for them.
Charlotte jutted her lower lip and dramatically exhaled, her thick bangs blowing upwards with her breath. “But, we’re not. Your parents didn’t adopt me until I was eleven. We weren’t raised together. Helen might even understand and accept it.”
Robert raised his eyebrow and stared at Charlotte. She shrugged her shoulders knowing this was a far-fetched comment. Helen was uptight and she would be the first one to try and institutionalize Charlotte for the mere suggestion.
“It’s not just Helen. My mom is still your mom, blood-related or not. My parents helped raised you. You were — are — still family. It isn’t right.”
Tears welled in Charlotte’s eyes and fell from her long, black lashes. “Every time I see you I get this ray of hope, this small sliver of sunshine within me. It’s a useless emotion that leads nowhere except to a pit of despair and self-pity, every single time.”
Robert placed his hand on hers. “I know. I feel the same way. That’s why I haven’t responded to you. And, that’s why we can’t keep this thing — whatever it is — going. We’re just torturing ourselves.”
“Why do we have to stop talking though?”
Robert exhaled loudly. “I’ll always be here for you, but at this point we’re feeding a fantasy. We pretend we can continue writing and calling each other without needing more. And, I’m done with it, I’m done playing pretend. I want to have a normal family and a normal relationship and I won’t be able to do that with you.”
Charlotte drew in a sharp breath and wiped her tears her with free bandaged wrist. “Well, as I’ve said before. Normal is overrated. But, I understand what you want, what you need.”
Robert lifted up her hand and kissed it. “I love you, I always have.”
“Remember when we were younger and we’d ride our bikes to Jurupa Lake when your parents were in one of their infamous screaming matches?” Charlotte waited for Robert to nod before continuing. “We’d fill our pockets with change and use it to buy duck food. We’d sit on the benches and throw food at the ducks, bathing in pure silence. We joked that we were the only kids in the world who craved silence, it was a luxury for us.”
“I miss that. Things have been so noisy lately. In my house and in my head. And, when the noise gets to be too much, I think about those days, sitting at the lake in silence. And, it helps. I guess I thought the rest of our lives would continue to be something like that.”
“I know. Me too.”
The two of them held hands, both comfortable with one another. It would be the last time they could sit in silence together. Helen burst through the hospital room a few minutes later, carrying a cardboard tray with three cups of coffee and a bucket of granola and chocolate bars. Charlotte and Robert immediately let go and watched their sister.
Helen placed the coffees on the small end table near the bathroom and dumped the snacks on Charlotte’s bed. Out of breath, she explained, “I read online that chocolate helps with depression so I bought a few snacks.”
Charlotte and Robert looked down and counted four granola bars and ten chocolate bars. The two of them looked up and exchanged smiles.
“So, if she eats about five bars right now, she’ll be healed right?” Robert smirked.
“Um, actually I think I have to eat all ten of them for it to really work.” Charlotte grinned.
“Oh, shut up!” Helen waved her hand at her siblings and snatched her coffee out of the cardboard tray. “You guys would not believe it! There with this man in his fifties standing in front of me, trying to make out with a girl who must have been in her early twenties! I mean, how gross, right? Like find someone your own age, pervert.”
Robert and Charlotte looked back at each other for a moment and then burst into laughter. Helen stared blankly at her siblings, confused. Charlotte knew Helen understanding their relationship had been a far-fetched hope the moment she said it out loud.
Charlotte watched Robert smoothly concoct a fabricated story on why they laughed when they did and felt her heart swell with admiration. Handsome, loving, and smart, Robert could talk his way through anything.
Staring down at her bandages, Charlotte wished one day he would be able to talk his own way back to her. She wished they could return to what they felt when they were young. To the last time she remembered feeling truly happy.