My sister wasn’t dead.
I watched her chest rise…and fall.
Her breathing, although unnatural, assured me that Kelsey was alive. That her heart was still beating. A squiggly line zigzagged across the monitor mounted on the wall, supporting my speculation. The wavy line goes flat when someone dies. I’d seen that in movies.
I lifted my little sister’s hand off the white sheet, cradling it in mine. Her skin was warm and soft, yet another sign of life. I traced my thumb over her delicate fingers being careful not to brush over scrapes and bruises.
Her sparkly pink nail polish was chipped. Her fingernails jagged. My stomach lurched at the sight. How did Kelsey end up in this hospital bed, hooked up to breathing tubes and monitors, when just yesterday she wouldn’t hold still for me to paint her fingernails? “Stop moving,” I’d told her a million times. “I’m trying to make you look like a star.”
“My voice is all that matters,” she’d disputed as she tipped her head back to sip water from her Camelbak. She’d been munching on after-school snacks, and singing along with her iPod, practicing for the Meadowview Elementary School talent show. I’d been more nervous for her debut than she’d been.
I hadn’t needed to be nervous. She was adorable up on that stage. A natural performer. The memory of her young voice belting out the Taylor Swift song, her small hand gripping the microphone, and her skinny legs stepping in time to the music, played like a movie in my mind.
Only twenty-four hours later, I didn’t see even a flicker of movement in her body. Even more chilling, her voice was eerily silent.
“Anna,” my mom said, wrapping an arm around my shoulder, urging me back to the present. “There’s someone here to tell us how Kelsey can live on.”
“Live on?” Hope breathed life into my deflated spirit. God, I knew you could save her.
In the hallway, a lady clutching a clipboard greeted me and my parents. “My name is Rosa Gonzalez.” She shook my hand, her tight grip a stark contrast to the flaccidity of my sister’s hand. “I’m deeply sorry for your loss.”
“Loss?” I stuffed my hands into the front pockets of my jeans. “My mom said you can save my sister.”
The lady bit her lower lip. “I’m here to talk to you about organ donation. Although Kelsey suffered severe trauma to her brain, many of her organs are healthy and could be donated to benefit multiple people.”
My stomach twisted into an angry knot. “How dare you? She’s still alive. You can’t just rip her apart like that.” I spun around to face my mom. “That lady isn’t gonna save Kelsey. She’s gonna kill her.”
Mom took a few shaky breaths. “Oh, Anna.” Reaching out to me, she swept blonde hair from my eyes, tucking a strand behind my ear. Her slender fingers were cold as they brushed against my skin. “Anna, please understand. Kelsey is already gone.”
I backed away from her touch, leaving her hand suspended in the air. “How can you just give up on her?”
Mom winced as if I’d slapped her face.
My lungs seemed to forget how to breathe. I doubled over at the waist, planted my hands on my knees and desperately sucked in air. Was this how Kelsey felt with that tube shoved down her throat? Like she was suffocating?
“Are you okay?” Clipboard lady had the nerve to ask.
“Leave me alone!” In a frantic search for fresh air, I pushed my way through a set of double doors and froze, suddenly faced by a swarm of onlookers in the waiting room. People I recognized from school and church and our neighborhood looked at me with sad, questioning eyes. They’d come to show support for Kelsey and my family, but I just wanted to be alone.
Dodging the visitors, I spotted an exit sign that led me to an outdoor garden. The air was heavy with moisture from the evening rain. I collapsed onto a bench, struggling for each breath. I clutched my hand to my chest, afraid I was having a heart attack.
“Slow, deep breaths,” a soothing baritone voice said. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw red Converse shoes striding toward me. I tried to tell him I wanted to be alone, but my words just came out in little puffs of air.
He sat down next to me. “You’ll be alright. It’s almost over.”
True to his word, my breathing gradually normalized. Once the garden stopped spinning and righted itself, I looked up into the sky, too embarrassed to make eye contact with the guy. The rain clouds had passed, leaving in their wake a diamond-studded starlit sky. “I’m fine now.” I hoped I was fine. A nervous giggle escaped me.
“It was just a panic attack. You’ll be okay.”
I looked at him then. He was about my age with dark wavy hair and eyes the color of a Starbucks mocha. Yummy. I became tragically aware of my own appearance. Thank goodness it was dark out. I rubbed trembling fingertips under my eyes, clearing smudged mascara, and I tucked blonde fly-aways behind my ears.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Words I’d never heard from a teenage guy before. Especially not a hot teenage guy.
“Not really.” He locked eyes with mine, sincerity shining through them. I sighed. “My little sister might die. She’s only seven years old.”
He sank back into the bench, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’m sorry.” He shivered, despite the balmy weather.
“It’s okay.” Tears spilled down my cheeks, exposing my true feelings. “Actually, it’s not okay. I don’t know why I said that.” Little hiccups came out as I tried to keep rogue tears from turning into a torrential downpour. I think I even snorted.
“Sometimes there are no words.” He dug the toe of his shoe into the gravel under the bench. “I’ve been there. My little brother died when he was two.”
That explained a lot.
“It’s been a few years now, but I still remember how people would try to make me feel better with cliché catch phrases. I mean, I’m glad they cared, but I didn’t want people trying to cheer me up.” He scoffed. “Unless their words could’ve brought my brother back, nothing they said could’ve made me feel better.” He swallowed audibly. “Sometimes I just wanted to be alone.”
I nodded. Finally, somebody who got me. “So why are you here now…at the hospital?”
He started filling dirt back into the hole he’d dug out with his shoe. “My sister fainted. They’re doing a bunch of tests.”
“People faint every day. She’ll be fine, right?”
A corner of his mouth edged up into a sheepish half-smile. “Yeah, sure.”
My phone chimed in my pocket. Maybe it was Mom saying Kelsey had woken up. With a pounding heart, I read the text. It was from Dad. “Time to go home. Meet me at car.” My heart sank.
“I have to go.” As I stood, my legs wobbled under my weight.
The guy stood alongside me, holding my elbow, steadying me. I studied his face, not wanting to forget him. Not knowing if I’d ever see him again. Not wanting to say goodbye. In the brief minutes I’d spent with him, he’d made me feel as though my life was almost manageable.
“Can I see you again?” He asked. “Ya know…if you want someone to talk to. Or not talk to.”
I nodded, a flicker of happiness sparking the dark cloud hovering over my head. “Meet me here at ten in the morning.” Then one step at a time, I began to walk away.
“Wait,” he called after me. “What’s your name?”
“Anna,” I said, glancing over my shoulder.
He smiled that cute half-smile. “I’m Ryker.”
Mom stayed at the hospital that night. Dad said he and I needed a good night’s rest at home. That was a laugh. How was I supposed to sleep under the circumstances? After tossing and turning for at least an hour, I crept into Kelsey’s room.
Her bed was made, in a haphazard seven-year-old sort of way, with a Taylor Swift bedspread stretched across it and her favorite teddy bear propped against the pillow. I picked up the stuffed bear and hugged it, resting my chin on its worn fur. Memories flooded over me of the day Kelsey had purchased the bear at a garage sale. She’d chosen this ugly tattered thing over a bigger, cuter bear for the same price. “All the kids will want that one,” she’d said about the other bear. “But this guy needs me to love him.” By the looks of it, the ratty thing had already experienced more than enough love. But I didn’t tell her that.
I laid in Kelsey’s bed, snuggling the bear and breathing in the scent of watermelon shampoo that lingered on her pillow. Kelsey had slept in this bed just the night before. Her sweet voice had rung out between these walls mere hours before. She couldn’t possibly be…gone. I couldn’t tolerate the notion of living without my little sister. Hot tears slid down my cheeks, soaking the teddy bear under my chin. God, you have to save her.
My silent tears morphed into body-racking sobs. If it were true what they were saying about Kelsey, I feared I’d never stop crying. Ever.
I thought of Ryker. How had he managed to live after losing his brother? Did I want to find a way to live without Kelsey? Questions, confusion and fear spun out of control in my mind. I sat up, fighting for my breath again. I wished I’d gotten Ryker’s phone number. I was desperate to hear his voice. To have him talk me off the ledge.
Peeling off the covers, I flew out of the bed and lifted the window open, sucking in the fresh air. Slow, deep breaths, Ryker’s words echoed in my mind. I leaned my forehead against the screen and closed my eyes, waiting for the panic to pass.
A breeze swept over my face, ruffling my hair and cooling my perspiring neck. The fresh aroma of spring showers lingered in the night air. The hum of car tires whirred past our house. Suddenly my head filled with sounds of pouring rain and tires squealing. I cringed, envisioning a car slamming into my little sister, crumpling her little white bike with the pink streamers dangling from the handlebars.
I screamed and slammed the window shut. My legs gave out from under me, gravity pulling me to the floor. Hugging my knees to my chest, sobs once again shook my body. I pulled Kelsey’s blanket off of her bed, and wrapped it around myself. Then I grabbed her iPod off the dresser and played her favorite song over and over again, comforted by the memory of her voice belting out the words at the talent show.
Somehow I dozed off because the next thing I knew, Dad was standing over me, jostling my shoulder. “Wake up, sweetie,” His voice was deep and gravely, as if he’d just woken up…or had been crying.
“I’m awake.” Peering through puffy eyes, I squinted against the sunlight pouring through the window. Slowly it came back to me that I’d slept in my sister’s room. That she was in the hospital. That things didn’t look good for her.
I dragged myself to a sitting position and propped my back against the dresser, hugging my knees to my chest. “Dad?”
He didn’t reply. He just looked at me, his gray eyes sad and bloodshot behind his glasses. I’d never seen Dad looking vulnerable before. He sat down next to me there on the floor, waiting for my question.
“Kelsey can get better, right? I mean, God can heal her, can’t He?”
Dad rubbed my back, and then kept his hand resting on my shoulder. I sensed that he needed me as much as I needed him. He sucked in a deep breath and held it before slowly exhaling. I held my own breath, my future resting in his answer. “The doctors say she’s gone.” His hand dropped from my shoulder, and his gaze broke from mine. He took off his glasses.
I didn’t believe the doctors. Hope was the only thing keeping me alive. There was no way I’d let that organ donation lady rip my sister apart if there was even the slightest shred of hope that she could be saved. “Dad, do you believe in miracles?”
“I do.” Dad put his glasses back on and stood up. “Get showered and let’s get to the hospital.” He strode out of Kelsey’s room.
I didn’t know exactly what Dad was thinking, but I had a feeling that he was on the same page with me. We needed to get to the hospital fast. To speak up for Kelsey. To show the doctors and the clipboard lady that she was still alive.
At the hospital, I told Kelsey I had a surprise for her. I tucked her stuffed bear under her hand. “Do you feel that, Kelsey? It’s your favorite bear.” She loved that bear. She’d be so excited to have it with her in the hospital. I stared at her fingers, waiting for them to move over the worn fur. When I didn’t see movement, I watched her face, hoping to see a smile. Still nothing.
Dad, standing next to me, sighed. He was watching for a reaction from Kelsey as intently as I was. We needed proof that she was still in her little body, alive and well—enough proof to convince Mom and the doctors and the clipboard lady.
I kissed Kelsey’s warm cheek. She normally wiped my kisses away. “Save it for your boyfriend,” she would tease. But this time she didn’t wipe it away or even flinch. And just like that…I knew.
Backing away from the hospital bed, I grabbed Dad’s arm, afraid my legs would give out. For the first time since her accident, I sensed she wasn’t truly there.
Dad pulled me to his side, cradling me in his strong arms as I cried…as he cried. After a few minutes of grieving as the truth sank in, he whispered in my ear words that I will never forget. Words that were the worst thing I’d ever hear, yet I’d needed to hear them from him so badly. With a quivering voice, he whispered, “It’s time for Kelsey to be with Jesus.”
The clipboard lady was back, minus the clipboard. She was talking to Mom in the hallway again. Looking at the tattered bear tucked under Kelsey’s arm, I knew what I needed to do. I kissed my sister’s cheek a second time, willing her to respond. When she didn’t, I went to the hallway and pulled Mom aside. “Mom, you need to donate Kelsey’s organs. She would want you to do that for someone.”
Mom hugged me so tight I could hardly breathe. She didn’t say anything. It was one of those times when there were no words. She didn’t have to say anything. I knew that she’d needed my support to let Kelsey go, just as I had needed Dad’s.
I found Ryker in the garden, sitting on our bench. I sat next to him.
“How’s your sister?” he asked, his sincerity wrapping around me like a cozy blanket.
His strength gave me courage to speak honestly. “She’s dying.” My heart ached more than I’d ever thought possible. I cried, and didn’t hold back. There was no point. The sadness was greater than me.
Ryker put his arm around me, holding me as I wept. After I’d thoroughly saturated his shoulder with snot and tears, I told him I’d better go. “I want to be with Kelsey as much as possible.”
“Anna, I need to tell you something first.” He planted his elbows on his knees and stared at the ground. “I wasn’t completely honest with you.”
“You mean you lied?” I’d trusted this guy whole-heartedly. Anger flashed through my body.
“I didn’t lie. I just didn’t tell you the whole story about my sister. I wanted to feel like a regular guy for once. Not the guy with the sad story.”
“So I’m the pathetic girl with the sad story?” I crossed my arms over my chest.
“That’s not what I mean. It’s just that…it was nice to be the one comforting someone else for a change.” He looked me in the eye. “I’m sorry.”
His compassionate eyes melted my defenses. “So what’s going on?”
Ryker started digging his toe around in the gravel again. “The truth is…my sister Ella has something wrong with her heart—just like my brother did. She’s been in and out of hospitals since she was born. This time, we don’t know if she’ll come home.”
Ryker’s half-truths made sense now. He hadn’t wanted to one-up me with the fact that he could lose a second sibling. “And she’s here now?”
Ryker nodded. “She’s real sick. She’s pale and weak, but she still smiles and tries to sing along with movies.” Ryker laughed lightly despite the tears glistening in his eyes. “She’s only five years old. She’s excited to go to kindergarten in the fall.”
“She sounds adorable. Can I meet her? I would love to hear her sing.” I would never hear my sister sing again.
“Really? Are you sure?”
More than anything, I wanted to meet his sister. “I’m sure.”
Ryker led me to a different floor than the one Kelsey was on. Unlike Kelsey’s quiet unit, there was a hushed murmur of activity. We passed by a little boy being pulled in a red wagon. He waved to me. I smiled and waved back, trying to ignore the fact that he was skin and bones and wore a mask.
Ryker grabbed my hand as if he sensed my discomfort. He squeezed my fingers. “This is it.” We stopped in front of a door decorated with children’s artwork. In the middle, a glittery sign cut out from construction paper read Ella. Ryker eased the door open, revealing a cute little girl snoring softly in the bed. Her dark brown curls had been gathered into two ponytails. She looked small for a five-year-old.
A woman sat in a rocking chair by the window, reading. Ryker introduced me. “Mom, this is Anna.”
The lady stopped rocking and set her book in the windowsill behind her. She crossed the room to shake my hand. “I’m Helen. It’s nice to meet you.” She had dark hair like Ryker and his sister, and she had the same warm brown eyes. Her phone rang. “Excuse me a moment.” She stepped into the hallway.
“I guess you’re not going to hear Ella sing right now,” Ryker said.
I looked at the sleeping girl. “Maybe another time. Thank you for bringing me here. It means a lot to me.”
A shriek came from the hallway.
“Mom!” Ryker exclaimed, running out the door. I followed him. Helen threw her arms around Ryker and smothered him in kisses while both laughing and crying. I looked on, trying to decipher if Helen’s outburst was good or bad.
“Ryker, you’re not going to believe this,” Helen cried. “Ella is getting a new heart.”
Ryker untangled himself from his mom’s embrace, pulling back to look her in the eyes. “Are you sure? Is this really happening?”
Helen smiled broadly, tears of happiness streaming down her face. “It’s happening today. The heart is here. In this hospital.”
My breath caught in my throat. Kelsey.
Helen pulled me into a group hug. “It’s a miracle,” the woman shouted.
“I’m happy for you,” I said between sobs. “It’s a miracle for sure.”
My tears, both happy and sad, mingled with those of my new friends. I knew with all my heart that when Kelsey would look down from Heaven, watching Ella play and hearing her own heart beating inside Ella’s chest, my sweet little sister would be the happiest of all.