Run

Posted: November 23, 2015 in Random Thoughts
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Four hours. She’d lasted four hours this time, sitting with Lizzy, just talking, reading to her. Just being with her sister as she died.

It had begun slowly, her eyes catching on Lizzy’s hands, noting the way the light rendered her almost transparent. Then the curve of her neck, the knife-edge of her clavicle and then her hands itching for a camera or a brush or a pencil, because no matter how much her heart hated what was happening, her mind and eyes saw the play of light and shadow and thought…beautiful. She couldn’t turn it off, couldn’t push it away, and Lizzy had always been her favourite subject.

“Jeannie,” her sister had whispered when she’d shut her eyes and pressed her knuckles against them, desperate to stop seeing, trying to force her brain to stop calculating brush strokes and lighting and remember that Lizzy was dying, for god’s sakes, and she deserved more than to have even this sacrificed to Jeannie and her damned art. “Jeannie, go for a run. It’ll do you good to get out of here for a bit.”

She’d fought the sigh of relief with everything she had. She was desperate to get out, to see something, to have something catch her eye and mind so that she could come back here cleansed and a little less desperate, but this was her sister, almost her own self, and Lizzy needed her.

“I want to stay with you,” she’d said, because that was true. She wanted to take every moment of Lizzy’s life and press it into the scrapbook of her memory because now they were finite, every precious grain falling through the hourglass a countdown to a time where Lizzy was not a part of the world anymore, where half her soul was missing, and every moment was precious.

Lizzy had smiled at her and kissed her hand, and said, “Go. And bring your gear when you come back, it’s not natural seeing you without it.”

Jeannie had recoiled, shaking her head violently.

No.

She’d lived her life in the service of her art. They’d both sacrificed so much – Lizzy more than her, because it was always Lizzy who cared for her, who held down jobs. Lizzy who left a date in the middle of dinner because Jeannie had had an idea and if she didn’t get it out now she would tear herself apart until she could be rid of it. Lizzy had given up an entire life she could have had, if her sister hadn’t been what she was, laid her life on the altar of Jeannie’s art, and Jeannie refused to give her death to it as well.

“Jeannie,” Lizzy had said, quietly pleading.

“No. I’ll go for a run, but I’m not bringing anything back. It doesn’t belong here, not now, and I won’t let it take this from you too.”

She rushed from the room before her twin could say another word, fled the hospital and caught a taxi to the flat they shared. She shoved some money at the driver and went up. It smelled like a mausoleum now, no beeswax floor polish or fresh paint, just dust and silence. She hadn’t been back here since she’d woken up three days ago to find Lizzy in the bathroom, throwing up blood and desperate to hide it. Three days in the corridors of the hospital when she wasn’t in her sister’s room, three days since Lizzy’s awkward confession, since her sister had told her about the diagnosis, now more than a month old.

Three days since the word terminal had entered her vocabulary and grown there, until for hours at a time it circled in her mind, all she could hear, all she could see, as the night passed and her sister lay quietly sleeping.

Three days of sitting by her sister’s bedside and watching her die, or haunting the halls and waiting rooms like a wild-eyed ghost, as though she was the one who had died.

Three days where she hadn’t touched a pen or a pencil or a camera, where she had ignored the siren call of light playing on every surface she saw until she couldn’t, and when she couldn’t ignore it anymore she had gone up to the roof of the hospital and opened herself wide until every sound and sight came blasting into her, overloading her senses until she screamed and her mind was quiet again, until she could sit quietly in her sister’s room and not see.

She almost fell over the mail, a small sad pile in front of the door. Bills and galleries, all begging for her attention. She ignored them. The bills would wait, what did she care if they cut off the power or the water? And as for the galleries…she’d never cared about them a bit. Lizzy had done all that, had taken care of bills and groceries and selling the art Jeannie created. Lizzy was everywhere in the flat, the walls covered in photo studies and sketches and oils, because Lizzy was endlessly fascinating and Jeannie felt that she could never understand her, but when she was painting her or drawing her, she thought maybe she came close.

Jeannie went through the motions of showering, of dressing, only to realize once she was putting her hair into a simple tail that she was wearing Lizzy’s clothes, Lizzy’s bright pink tank and shorts and her orange-and-green running shoes. For a moment it was though the woman in the mirror was Lizzy, whole and healthy and not dying after all.

The moment shattered and she ran, leaving the flat without locking the door, just running, the way she’d always run with her sister, eating up the ground under her feet.

It helped, as it always did, as few other things did, the focus on the physical, the incipient exhaustion combining to clear her mind, drive away her sight and leave her thoughts clear. Only this time there was only one thought in her mind, one thought twisting and turning and dancing through the blankness.

Lizzy is dying

               Dying

                          Lizzy

                                     Lizzy dying

                                                              Lizzy is dying dying dying dying.

It looped through her mind, echoing the rhythm of her feet or perhaps her feet were echoing the rhythm of her mind, and it was as though something in her gave way because she blinked and there were tears in her eyes, tears streaming down her face and her breath came in gasping pants that had nothing to do with exertion and everything to do with the fact that her sister was in a white-walled hospital room with golden sunlight spilling over her too-thin hands, and she was dying. She was dying and there was nothing Jeannie could do, and sometimes when she looked at her sister all Jeannie could see was the contrast of light and shadow and the way her skull curved and Jeannie had never seen her bald before, hadn’t known how beautiful it would be, and she wanted to capture it and keep it forever.

She didn’t even realise that she had been running with her eyes closed until she collided with something and went down hard with something scalding her shoulder and chest and a startled oath in her ears.

Her eyes opened and she saw

She saw

Golden skin and black hair, eyes that looked green and smooth jaw, mouth nose lashes

He was beautiful and she was already calculating, wondering if his eyes would turn cat-gold in the right light as some green eyes did, and-

She shut her eyes and pressed her scraped palms to them, blocking out the sight, but it was no good, because he was already there, and now she was trying to think of ways to get him to the flat, to her lights and cameras and paints.

“Are you alright?” he asked. Deep voice, full of concern. She shook her head and kept her eyes closed. “Are you hurt? I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you-“

“Fine,” she managed, though her throat was clogged up and she couldn’t really breathe. “I’m fine.”

“You’re crying,” he said.

Was she? Still?

Yes, she couldn’t breathe because she was still sobbing, and there were still tears in her eyes, salt burning the scrapes on her hands.

“Not your fault. I’ll be okay.”

Lying is bad, Jeannie, Lizzy said in her mind but, just this once, she probably wouldn’t mind. Or maybe she would. It was hard to tell, sometimes, when there were lies like I turned eighteen last week, my name is Marina, that dress looks fantastic and also lies like this isn’t mine, I didn’t do this, never again, I promise and some were acceptable and some not.

Didn’t matter anyway because he didn’t believe her, just stayed kneeling beside her while she cried into her hands.

Then he took a deep breath and took her by the arms, hauling her to her feet and setting her on a bench. She dropped her hands in her lap and put her head back, staring up at the leaves sparkling in the sun, the trees above, everything blurred and blotted by the moisture in her eyes and still so beautiful.

“Look,” he asked. “Is there someone I can call for you? I mean, you’re obviously not okay.”

Lizzy. Lizzy had always been the one they called, when Jeannie had gotten lost, or high, or upset. But Lizzy couldn’t come now and Lizzy wouldn’t be able to come again.

She shook her head and he sighed.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s get you a coffee or something to drink and we’ll take care of those scrapes. Okay?”

She nodded. She hadn’t looked at him since that first glance. Didn’t want to. Didn’t want to take the chance that he would still be as beautiful, that she would want to take him home and do whatever she had to do to make him stay. He helped her to her feet and walked beside her, almost hovering, almost the way Lizzie would have done, in the times when Jeannie had needed her to come for her, when she didn’t know where she was, or who, in the times when she’d seen too much and shut herself away where for a little while she didn’t have to see anything at all.

She kept her eyes open and didn’t look at him as he walked beside her to a coffee shop she didn’t catch the name of, and settled her in a chair and asked what she wanted to drink.

She shook her head and he ordered her plain coffee and handed her a napkin for her face, and she realized that somewhere between the bench and the chair she’d stopped crying, which was good. Not-crying was good, and not-thinking was even better, and she sat with the napkin in her hand and didn’t cry and didn’t think until he took it from her and cleaned her face with gentle efficiency.

“Would you like to tell me what’s wrong?” he asked. “Because I know I’m a stranger, and I probably can’t help, but sometimes just saying it aloud helps. And I did spill my coffee all over you.”

She didn’t need to say it aloud. She’d already said it, screamed it into the noise on the roof of the hospital, sobbed it into her sister’s arms. She spread her hand over the damp spot on her shirt and stared past him.

“My sister,” she said, and her voice was hoarse and rough, her mouth dry as the desert, the desert Lizzy had taken her to so that she could paint the majestic languorous waves of the dunes and the way the African sun turned her into a statue made of light.

He leaned forward, all concern. How did they do that? Care so much? Jeannie had never cared for anything that wasn’t the work or her sister, and Lizzie was so much a part of her that she supposed it didn’t really count.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Dying,” she breathed. “Cancer, dying, and I…I can’t…I don’t…”

She broke again, tears spilling over her face, and he took her into his arms with the easy grace of someone to whom compassion came as naturally as breathing, and let her cry into his shirt while the waitress brought their coffee.

“I’m so sorry,” he said eventually. “Did you just hear?”

She shook her head but didn’t lift it. The body was wrong but the feelings were right, and this could have been Lizzy, whose heart was big enough for the entire world, who cared more than anyone should.

“Three days,” she said. “She knew, but she didn’t tell me.”

And that had been the worst, when she’d asked why didn’t you tell me and her beautiful sister, the only thing that had ever mattered to her, had smiled gently and said you were working. Because when she was working Jeannie wouldn’t hear, and if Lizzy had tried to tell her she would not have understood, and if she’d understood she wouldn’t have cared. Jeannie had never wished to be someone else, someone normal, more than in the moment where the centre of her world had said that she couldn’t interrupt the work for the news of her own death.

She disengaged and took her coffee, letting its heat seep into her fingers. She’d done a series of photographs once, just the curls of steams rising from cups of coffee, the steams drawing patterns in the air, gone as quickly as they’d appeared. Those little curls of steam were immortal now, in a way, captured forever in a single moment.

“Is there something I can do?” he asked. “I mean, I know that-“

She looked up to find his face turned to her, open and full of emotion, green eyes gleaming gold where the light caught them. He was wearing a suit, stained now where the coffee had spilled all over him, but he didn’t seem to mind that. His black hair fell into his face. She’d have him on a couch, light falling across him and turning him into a study in ebony and amber.

“Come with me to the hospital?” she asked.

“I…what?” He was startled, almost dismayed, his eyes flicking away from her.

“I don’t want to go back,” she whispered, and it was true. “I’m scared,” she said, and that was true too.

She’d made him uncomfortable. Had she said something wrong? Lizzy had always been better at talking, at making people understand what Jeannie needed.

“I…um…shouldn’t I call someone? Another family member?”

She shook her head and dropped her gaze again. There was no-one to call, no-one who’d come if she did. Just Lizzy, who’d saved Jeannie from the hellish greyness of life after the accident, who’d saved her life and kept them alive until the Work started bringing in some money, in between her majority and the inheritance coming in.

“She likes people,” she assured him. She did. Lizzy always liked to talk to people, find out about their lives and hopes and dreams and draw them in, as though anything mattered about them aside from their bodies and the way the light touched them. Jeannie had never seen the appeal, never understood why her sister put so much effort into making them like her, when it was so much simpler to just give them what they wanted until they gave her what she wanted. She didn’t know what the golden-eyed man wanted, though. Not yet.

“If you’re sure,” he said, and she stood and grabbed his hand, interlacing her fingers with his. He had good hands, not smooth, and his fingertips were calloused. He started a bit when she took his hand, but followed her lead, pausing to pay the bill – the waitress had a pug nose and huge black eyes, and Jeannie wanted to take her home and take her apart but she had this one in her hand now, so she just dragged him behind her and he followed, not unwilling. Lizzy would like this, she was sure. She couldn’t – wouldn’t – bring the work into that room, but she could bring something else, something interesting. Lizzy liked people, she’d like this one, and if he was there she could watch the light move on his face and his hands, and not have to look at her sister dying and think of turning it into art, into something beautiful.

“You don’t even know my name,” he said eventually, as they rounded the corner to the hospital. He’d been walking beside her in silence for almost twenty minutes now, his dress shoes whispering and clicking beside her and his hand in hers. Three times he’d used that grip to stop her from crossing a road, and once to tug her into motion when she’d become momentarily entranced by a wrought-iron fence wreathed in honeysuckle, the scent and sight of it almost overwhelming and the urge to capture it forever itching in her hands.

“No, I don’t,” she agreed. She didn’t care for names much. They were usually irrelevant, when you needed someone for just one night, just one portrait. But she could already see that he was interesting, in his tailored suit and slightly worn shoes, with calloused hands and pale-golden skin, clean-shaved and messy-haired. He had facets, he was interesting, and she would keep him until she had explored them all.

“I’m Gideon, by the way,” he said when she said nothing more, and she nodded in acknowledgement and added it to the picture of him she was forming. People liked it when you remembered their names. It made them feel important, even when they weren’t. Especially when they weren’t.

“And you are?”

She didn’t bother replying to that. They’d reached the hospital anyway, and she swept in with him in her wake. They stared, in the waiting room, at the blonde in the hot pink clothes, with blood on her knees and her hands, at the suited man trailing behind her, but the duty nurse just nodded and let her past.

“It’s not visiting hours,” Gideon remarked.

“No, it’s not,” she agreed. Lizzy had made sure that Jeannie could stay with her, would never be kept away from her no matter what.

Lizzy wasn’t sleeping when they reached her room, and her grey-blue eyes widened when she saw Jeannie.

“Jeannie, what happened?” she asked, her hoarse voice full of love and concern. It still sounded a little like what did you do.

“We had a bit of an accident in the park,” Gideon said. He was still hovering in the door even though she’d already entered and put her head in the crook of Lizzy’s neck, breathing in the scent of home under disinfectant and hospital soap. “Your sister seemed upset,” he added.

Lizzy sighed and stroked her hair, and when Jeannie looked up she gave her a tired, sweet smile.

“Oh, Jeannie,” she murmured. Then she turned to Gideon and extended a hand, slender and graceful as always, or maybe more so because every tendon stood out in sharp relief. “Please, come in. I’m Lizzy, and this is my sister Jeannie, because she probably didn’t introduce herself.” Lizzy’s hand almost vanished in his, always small and now more fragile than ever, his gold-toned skin contrasting against milky-white.

He chuckled. It was a pleasant sound, deep and almost gruff, and it made Lizzy’s smile widen just that extra fraction, the fraction nobody else could ever see that took it from I’m being polite to You’re interesting.

“You’re right, she didn’t. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lizzy,” he said quietly and took a seat by the bedside, all unconscious grace and compact limbs. He was still holding her hand, his eyes fascinated on her face. Jeannie smiled to herself. Lizzy was endlessly intriguing, her mobile features and flickering expressions turning an already-beautiful face hypnotic. Even now, with her cheeks hollowing under the onslaught of the disease, her face was still itself, and it was almost as though her masks were falling away with the flesh, revealing the bright spirit beneath, the part of her that had always been missing from every picture Jeannie had made of her, no matter how hard she tried. “Though I’m not exactly sure why-“

“I like meeting new people,” Lizzy said airily, “And Jeannie knows I hate flowers.”

That earned her another soft laugh, and Jeannie grinned. Lizzy had always liked making people laugh.

“Jeannie,’ Lizzy said, “why don’t you go clean up a bit? Put something on those scratches. Gideon will keep me company, won’t you?”

Jeannie only caught the tail end of his nod as she stood, but he was leaning forward a bit in his chair, his eyes fixed on Lizzy’s face. He looked more comfortable already, half-enchanted as people tended to become when Lizzy focused on them.

She took her time in the shower. The water wouldn’t go as hot as she usually liked it, but it stung and burned on her knees and her hands, and she spent some time picking open the newly forming scabs and watching pinkish tears run down her hands, dripping from the point of her elbow to the floor before flowing down the drain. Water had always been her favourite element. Never the same twice, every moment a revelation. They had gone to an island once, Jeannie had forgotten where it was if she had ever known at all, and she’d scared her sister rather badly when she had first truly seen the ocean. It had been glorious, though. Too much sound and scent and motion, it had scoured her clean, rendered her blank for a glorious eternity. She had spent hours on the beach, completely blissed out on the sensory overload of it all. It was better than any drug, and orders of magnitude better than standing on the roof of the miserable little hospital and losing herself in wind and traffic patterns. Standing in the shower was a poor echo of it, but she still stayed there for an uncounted time, watching steam curl in the air and cataloguing the patterns the water made as it ran down the glass of the shower wall.

Eventually, the shower shut off automatically, and she dried off and dressed, skirt-shirt-sandals, everything matching because Lizzy made sure all Jeannie’s clothes were basically interchangeable. She brushed her hair without looking into the mirror, not wanting to see her sister’s eyes staring back at her from the fog.

When she emerged, Gideon was still there, holding Lizzy’s hand and talking in a low voice, and Lizzy was glowing at him despite the fact that on the other side of her body, where he couldn’t see, her hand was clenched in a white-knuckled fist around the self-medicate button.

Gideon smiled at her as she emerged and stood, untangling his hand from Lizzy’s.

“Thank you,” he said to Lizzy. “For talking to me.”

Lizzy smiled her most brilliant smile at him and he blushed, and Jeannie was instantly fascinated again, because his blush was absolutely charming, especially coupled with that shy grin and his sparkling eyes. He didn’t look like a man who would be able to look shy and boyish, and she just itched to capture that expression forever.

“Will you come and see me again?” Lizzy asked quietly. “You could play the violin for me.”

“I…yeah,” he said awkwardly. “Yeah, I’d like that. I’d like that very much, actually,” he added, and smiled at her. “Tomorrow?”

“Oh, please,” Lizzy said, and her smile had grown even more. Even her tired eyes were sparkling a bit. “It gets so boring here, you wouldn’t believe. Jeannie, will you see Gideon out and have him put on the visitor’s list at the nurse’s station?”

Jeannie nodded immediately and took Gideon’s hand again, hauling him out of the room.

“She needs a lot of rest,” she said when they were out of the room. “She’s probably asleep by now.”

“Did I tire her out?” he asked worriedly, looking over his shoulder at the door.

Dying is tiring her out. You’re keeping her entertained.” She yanked him to a stop in front of the nurse’s station and ignored the look he gave her. The nurse tried to argue with her at first, and had to wake Lizzy up for confirmation, but they eventually got his name added.

Lizzy was awake but woozy when she got back to the room, and she smiled at Jeannie as she moved around the room, settling the covers more firmly, smoothing wrinkles from them. It was vile that she was so comfortable here, that she knew enough to be able to gauge Lizzy’s pain levels from the IV – a 7 today, worse than yesterday but better than that first day – or recognize the doctors by the sound of their footsteps in the hallways. She wanted Lizzy at home, where things were quiet and Lizzy wasn’t in pain. Except of course that Lizzy had been in pain, had been in pain at home for months and never breathed a word, and Jeannie hadn’t even noticed. Jeannie realized she’d been clenching her hands around the railing at the foot of Lizzy’s bed until her knuckles were white, and loosened her fingers carefully. They ached.

“Jeannie,” Lizzy murmured, putting out both hands. Jeannie went to her gratefully, climbing on the bed, careful of the drips and tubes and curling against her, revelling in the simple animal comfort of Lizzy, of Lizzy still being there, alive for Jeannie to hold on to. Lizzy pressed a kiss on her hair and wrapped her arms around her. “Jeannie, you know you can’t bring me random strangers off the street every time you feel guilty, don’t you?” Lizzy asked, and Jeannie nodded. Of course she knew that, she wasn’t stupid, after all, and most people were boring anyway. Not Gideon, though. He had eyes a colour she’d never seen in real life before, and he’d cared that she was crying and apologized for Lizzy dying even though it obviously wasn’t his fault, and she wanted to draw him so badly that it was almost, almost enough to drown out the way the scarlet sunset light turned Lizzy into a creature of fire. If he came back she wouldn’t need others, not for a while. She could study him, imagine how she would draw him, watch the way the light caressed his skin and played in his eyes, and she would be distracted enough.

“I know that,” was all she said. “But you like him, don’t you?”

“I do,” Lizzy said, and Jeannie could hear the smile so clearly in her voice. “I like him very well. Thank you.”

“Mmm, good.”

Lizzy kissed her hair again and tightened her arms, not nearly as much as she would have done even a month ago, but enough that Jeannie knew she was safe, that nothing would touch her while Lizzy was there. “Now go to sleep. I’ll be here when you wake up, okay?”

She was asleep before Jeannie, though, morphine and tiredness combining to carry her off. Jeannie followed soon after, lulled to sleep by her sister’s heartbeat against her ear.

 

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