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Chapter 1

How could this have happened?

My thoughts were a circular loop of unanswered questions. Ellie had been getting ready for school, Mum turned away for just a moment to pack Ellie’s lunch…

I imagined her losing her footing on the stairs, her arms desperately trying to grab onto something as she fell. I heard the crack of her head hitting each step even though I hadn’t been there.

I hadn’t been there.

Maybe that was why she fell. If I had been there to tell her to “be careful on those stairs!” she would have slowed down, taken them one at a time while holding the rail just how I showed her.

Instead she was in this Hospital, with wires and tubes that made her seem even smaller than she was. With words like ‘Brain damage’ buzzing around in the air. All the doctors seemed to know is what was already obvious.

It was bad luck that you hit every single one of our twelve steps with your head. There was bound to be brain damage if you woke up, when you woke up.

I felt like the worst big sister in the world, sitting by your bedside and knowing that you would have hated the plastic whiteness of this room. You liked the Pink walls you had at home.

White and Purple, you would berate the hospital for their lack of knowledge about which colours go together. At six you thought you knew everything there was to know about the world.

Mum was a mess, she kept leaving the room to ‘make a phone call’ but I was pretty sure she was finding quiet places to cry. Her eyes, the same blue as yours, were red and puffy. She must be blaming herself more than I was blaming myself. She was there, she could have done something.

I didn’t want to be in this hospital anymore; they have a mattress for the parents of children in comas. So that they can stay and keep their little one’s company. Not for the siblings, not for older sisters.

Mum asked me to pick up some of her things to bring back in the morning. Gave me a hug that almost choked me, and then let me go. A part of me felt guilty for leaving, but I had school in the morning.

I wondered on the bus home if there would be blood on the stairs, if there was I would have to clean it up before Mum came home. I didn’t want it to upset her or be reminded of what had happened myself.

When I finally did get home the sun was starting to set, the shadows made the small splatter of blood on the bottom step look brown instead of red. This made it easier to clean, I just pretended it was another Peanut Butter stain and not the result of the accident.

I delayed going to bed for as long as possible because I knew what would happen the moment I laid down. Images of Ellie falling and the guilt of not being there to catch her would play over and over in my mind.

I packed a bag of spare clothes for mum to change into tomorrow and even though she wouldn’t be awake yet I thought I should put something in the bag for Ellie. Something to give her some comfort if she woke up. When she woke up.

I went into her room and sighed as I always did at the mess of stuffed animals on the floor. There were so many, I didn’t know which to pack. I noticed that Stacy wasn’t lying amongst the Teddies and Ducks and wondered where my sister had left her.

I walked through the house checking low down shelves and drawers for Ellie’s doll. She always put things down and forget where they were. I once found a pair of sunglasses mum had bought her lying behind the toilet. Ellie couldn’t even remember putting them there.

I found Stacy lying at the top of the stairs, her googly eyes almost looked sad and I wondered if Ellie had been holding her while she was getting ready for school this morning. I put Stacy in the bag with the clothes, she might look happier when she was reunited with Ellie.

I turned off all the lights in the house and went to bed. As I predicted, I couldn’t stop thinking about Ellie’s accident. My little sister was clumsy, but I never thought she would seriously hurt herself.

I must have eventually drifted off to sleep because I woke up in the middle of the night for the second time in a row. My hand was hurting again, but when I looked at it nothing was different. I was frustrated and tired, so when I thought I heard a noise in the hall I thought it was just in my head.

I got up and peeked around the corner and saw Stacy lying in the hall. On the wall written in red was the word DON’T. Who had put that there? Was it some of Ellie’s handiwork that I just hadn’t noticed until now? Why was Stacy out of the overnight bag?

I put her back in the bag and zipped it up this time. Her sad eyes haunted me for the rest of my night. I barely slept. Something was going on. I just wasn’t smart enough to figure it out yet.

The sleep deprivation wasn’t helpful the next day, everyone at school had heard about what had happened. I got sympathising looks everywhere I went and none of my teacher’s asked about the homework I didn’t do because I was at the hospital.

It was strange to have older kids who never paid much attention to me before coming up to talk to me about Ellie’s accident. It felt like everyone was tiptoeing around me even though it was my sister who was in Hospital, not me.

The school day seemed to pass by in a blur, before I knew it I was walking into the hospital room that didn’t look any different from the day before. Same tubes and mum watching you with lost eyes.

“Mum? I…” she was so broken; I knew that even if I tried to comfort her she wouldn’t really hear any of it. I don’t think she had slept for a moment, bags under her eyes and the tremor in her hands confirmed what I already knew.

She looked up and I knew she wasn’t seeing me, Hannah, standing in front of her. Perhaps she was picturing my sister awake and walking. Then again, she could simply be thinking of nothing at all. Exhaustion clouding her mind.

I put the overnight bag down and pulled Stacy out, it could have been my imagination but she did look happier. I don’t think mum even noticed when I slid her into Ellie’s arms. Careful to avoid the snaking tubes and wires.

My poor little sister, when she was awake she hated needles. I remembered when we were younger and I came with her to watch her get her shots. How she screamed and tried everything in her Three-year-old power to get away from the doctor.

Hopefully they would take them out if you woke up, when you woke up. I could just imagine the nurses trying to distract you with lollypops and colouring in pages while the doctor pulled out the tubes. One at a time, nice and gently.

“El…” Mum had left the room while I watched you, whether to cry or get a coffee I wasn’t sure. I hoped she would pull herself together before you woke up.

“When you wake up, I’ll take you to that new Ice cream shop, you know the one I told you made Vegetable Flavoured Ice cream so that you wouldn’t ask me to take you” my eyes burned with tears that wanted to come out. I should have just taken you. Instead of making up childish stories.

“They have Choc Peanut Butter… I knew you would get it everywhere… You’d ask for double scoop and then it would melt because you wouldn’t eat it fast enough” I didn’t want more work, didn’t want to have to clean your sticky hands and face. So, I didn’t tell you, and now I wasn’t even sure if you could hear me.

Ellie hadn’t moved, hadn’t even twitched a muscle. Stacy lay limp by her elbow. Her red hair and stitched smile didn’t match the pale colours of this hospital. She seemed out of place.

I thought I might take her home with me when I left for the night. Maybe I would pick up all the toys from your floor. Arrange them nicely on your bed and tidy your room. So, it would be pretty when you came home.

I brushed some stray hair out of your face, imagining that it might be tickling you, and how it must be annoying not to be able to move it yourself.

I looked up as mum came back into your room, she had a coffee in her hands and a nurse leading her into one of the chairs. The ladies smile was soft and warm; I don’t think mum was the first distraught parent she had comforted.

“Have the doctors said anything new?” I wondered how long it would be before anything would change. I desperately wanted you to get better even though I knew enough to know that wasn’t always what happened.

“No…” mum didn’t seem present; she was here but her mind was clearly somewhere else. Perhaps in bed where the rest of her should be. Even if the doctors had said anything to her, I doubted that she would recall any of it.

“Don’t worry love, I’ll keep an eye on your Mum. It’s understandable that she doesn’t want to leave your sister. It’s been a rough time for her” Nurses aren’t give nearly enough credit. I couldn’t comfort a woman I didn’t even know, especially if she looked as distraught as mum did.

“Thank you so much. Ellie needs mum to be strong for her” I hoped that having mum by her side would bring my little sister some comfort. A reason to hold on to life.

“I’ll take Stacy home El, I just thought you’d want to know she’s waiting to play with you when you wake up” I picked up the doll and took one last look at my sister. Time to go home and sort out her room. At least then I would feel like I was helping somehow.

“I’ll bring donuts tomorrow mum” a smile tugged at the corners of my mouth despite everything. Ellie always took the chocolate one out of the box before I could. Then she smeared her chocolate covered hands all through the bus on the way home. I always felt bad for the driver.

“See you later Elephant” this new normal was so strange, the one-sided conversations even stranger. It wouldn’t be like this forever, I had hope, I had to have hope.

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