Still a work in progress, p.12
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       Still a Work in Progress, p.12

           Jo Knowles
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  Emma’s backpack is on the floor, her books spilling out. I go over and zip them inside. I don’t know why. It just seems like Emma wouldn’t want her space to be untidy. I open the shades to let some sun in. The Captain follows me. I pet his head and he makes a sad noise, then licks my hand.

  “What are you doing in here, Noah?”

  My dad stands in the doorway, looking like he hasn’t slept.

  “Just letting some light in, I guess.”

  “That’s nice.”

  “Have you heard from Mom yet?”

  “She texted me a few times through the night. Emma’s stable and sleeping.”

  “Is Mom OK?”

  He shrugs.

  “Merry Christmas,” I say.

  “Oh,” he says. “Right. Merry Christmas, buddy.” He hugs me. He smells like stale clothes and morning breath. And worry.

  I squeeze my arms around him and wish I could just keep holding on, but he pulls away from me and sighs like he has never been so tired in his life.

  “Are we going back to the hospital?” I ask.

  He nods. “Go take a shower and I’ll make some breakfast.”

  “OK.” I walk out to the hallway and wait for him to follow, but he doesn’t. Neither does the Captain. I listen, wondering what he’s doing in there. But then I hear him crying, and I wish I had just gone to the stupid shower.

  There’s almost no traffic on the road on our way to the hospital. We drive past houses decorated with colored lights, and I imagine the people inside, all cozy and happy and opening presents. My phone buzzes in my pocket, but I don’t look to see who it is. Sam or Ryan, most likely. I wonder if they heard about what happened yet. I wonder if anyone has, or if they’re all just assuming I’m home opening presents like everyone else who celebrates Christmas.

  “You might have to stay in the waiting room for a while,” my dad says. “Did you remember to bring something to read?”


  “Oh, Noah. You’ll just have to look at magazines, then.”


  We get out of the car and go to the reception area to find out where Emma is, then follow signs through the maze of halls until we find the room.

  “Let me check with Mom before we go in,” my dad says.

  “I’m not five,” I tell him. “I can handle it.”

  “Just let me check.”

  He leaves me standing in the hall. The nurses are all wearing Santa hats. One of them starts coming toward me with a mini candy cane. It is the absolute last thing I want right now, so I open the door to my sister’s room and duck inside.

  “Noah, I told you to wait!” my dad hisses.

  Emma is curled up with her back to me, just like she is every Christmas morning. But this time, there’s a tube attached to her somewhere, and my parents are standing beside her bed, holding each other up. They pull apart as soon as my mom sees me. She wipes her eyes.

  “You shouldn’t be in here, Noah,” she says.

  “Where should I be?” I ask.

  And Merry Christmas to you, too, I don’t say out loud.

  “We should talk in the hall,” my dad says.

  My mom reaches out and touches Emma’s back before we go, so I do, too. She doesn’t move. She’s covered in blankets, so I don’t know if she can feel my hand or not. I wonder if she’s just pretending to be asleep. Just in case, I press a little harder, so she knows it’s me.

  “Don’t wake her,” my mom whispers.

  “I wasn’t. I was just —”

  Trying to be sure of her.

  In the hall, my mom explains that the doctor wants to send Emma to a treatment center, just like last time. But a different one, that’s had better results. “There’s more staff there,” she says. “He thinks she’ll get better therapy, too.”

  “Where is it?” my dad asks.

  “Outside of Boston.”

  “But that’s over two hours away!”

  “Keep your voice down. I know. But isn’t it worth it? If they can help her for good this time?”

  My dad leans against the wall. “But it’s so far. What if something happens? We won’t be able to see her every day.”

  “They don’t want us to. They think she needs . . . to be away from us.”

  “How the hell is that supposed to help?”

  “Keep your voice down.”

  One of the Santa nurses starts walking toward us, and my mom gives my dad a look like, Nice going.

  “Merry Christmas!” the nurse sings. There’s a bell on the pom-pom of her hat.

  I feel like telling her we don’t celebrate. This year, it wouldn’t even be a lie.

  My mom smiles at her, but my dad turns away.

  “Would you like some hot chocolate?” the nurse asks me.

  “No, thanks.”

  “Have some, Noah,” my mom says. “Did you eat breakfast?”

  “Yes,” I say. “I’m the one you don’t have to worry about, remember?”

  She frowns at me, and I feel terrible. I don’t even know why I said it. The nurse gives us a strange look and walks away.

  “That was rude,” my mom says.


  “Let’s go to the cafeteria. I need some coffee.” She leads the way.

  Even though I tell her I don’t want anything, she gets me a hot chocolate. We sit at the only crumb-free table next to a window. Spits of snow are falling down, and the cars in the parking lot have a thin layer of white on them. They look like ghosts.

  We sit at the table, sipping our drinks and not talking.

  My dad keeps sighing and looking out the window. My mom clutches her paper coffee cup in both hands, staring at the plastic lid as if somewhere inside the tiny hole in the top are all the answers of what to do next.

  A doctor walks over to us. “Mr. and Mrs. Morin?”

  My parents nod.

  “One of the nurses said she thought she saw you come this way. I’m Dr. Sawyer, from New Horizons. Can we talk?”

  “Noah, do you remember how to get to the waiting room?” my dad asks.

  “Yeah,” I say. I get up and leave them and wander down the hall.

  Instead of going to the waiting room, though, I find Emma’s room and stand outside. No one seems to notice me or care that I’m here, so I open the door and go in.

  Emma is still curled up in her bed facing the wall. I go over and sit in the chair next to her. The plastic creaks when I sit down, and she stirs a little but doesn’t seem to wake up. I follow the clear tube coming from a plastic bag attached to a tall metal holder next to the bed. It’s attached somewhere to her body under the covers. Drips fall from the bag every second or two, silently hydrating my sister.

  “Merry Christmas,” I whisper quietly.

  “Merry Christmas,” she whispers back.

  I jump up and lean over her to see her face. Her eyes are closed.


  “I’m here.”

  She turns her head just barely, but enough to face me. Her lips are so chapped, there’s dried-up blood in the creases. She opens her eyes just a slit. It’s good to see her, even like this. Just to see that her eyes can still open.

  “Hey,” I say.

  “Hey. Sorry I ruined Christmas.” Her voice is raspy and hard to hear.

  “Are you OK?”

  She closes her eyes and doesn’t answer.

  I reach out and touch her shoulder through the blankets. It’s like grabbing a chicken bone.

  “Why, Emma?” I ask. “Why did you do it again?”

  Tears form in her closed eyes. They slowly gather in the corners and slip down her temples.

  “I don’t understand,” I say. “I don’t know how you can make yourself so sick.”

  “Neither do I,” she says through her broken lips.

  Her hand moves from under the blanket, so I pull the cloth back to find it. It’s the arm with things attached, and I want to cover it back up to hide the needle sticking into the top o
f her hand, but she wiggles her fingers, so I hold her hand and she squeezes mine back.

  Finally, she opens her eyes to look at me. “I’m sorry,” she says again, then lets go.

  “I don’t know what to say,” I tell her.

  “I know.”

  “What can I do?”

  “Don’t hate me.”

  I want to say I won’t, but I can’t force the words out.

  “I’m so tired,” she says. “Will you stay with me if I go to sleep?”


  I sit back down and listen to her breathing until it steadies out and I can tell she’s really sleeping again. I lean my head against the side of the railing and close my eyes.

  Get better, I say in my head. Please let her get better right now, I pray to God and Santa and anyone else who might have some magical power.

  But I know she can’t just magically be cured. She’ll have to go to a treatment center before she can come home again. And when she comes back, she’ll be different. Just like last time. She will be some new version of Emma that she thinks will make life easier. And maybe it will, and maybe it won’t. Maybe it will last, and maybe it won’t. But we’ll all walk around pretending either way, secretly terrified of this thing inside her that no one seems to understand or be able to stop. Why does she have to be the bird that can’t change?

  Why can’t she see she’s starving not just herself but also everyone who cares about her?

  I move my hand across the covers until I can feel her back somewhere under there. I press so I can feel her breath go up and down.

  Why do you do this? I ask her in my head.

  I feel her back rise just slightly, letting me know she’s still here, but that’s all. No answers, as usual. There’s no explanation that makes any sense, anyway.

  Later, when my parents come back, my dad tells me he’s taking me home again. I stand up and stretch and wait for my mom to at least hug me good-bye, but she kind of collapses into the chair and rests her head on the railing, just where mine was.

  “C’mon,” my dad says. He reaches for Emma’s side and places his hand where her hip might be, then squeezes his eyes shut, as if he’s making a wish. I reach out and touch her, too, and make the same wish I made earlier. Get better. Get better right now.

  But of course it doesn’t come true. There is no Santa. And I bet there’s no God, either.

  I climb out of my dad’s car and stand in the parking lot facing the school. Harper jogs ahead happily, and my dad leaves with Stu for the high school. Even after the car pulls away, I just stand there. I watch other people get out of their cars and hug as they go inside together. Everyone seems so happy to be back. They probably all had great vacations. They probably slept late and texted one another all day saying how great it is to not have to do anything. They probably met up in town to see a movie or whatever. They probably had sleepovers and gossiped about who would still be dating when we got back to school. They probably asked one another, “Did you hear what happened to Noah’s sister?”

  My phone battery died on Christmas Day, and I never bothered to charge it.

  “Noah!” It’s Ryan. He slams the door of his mom’s car. She waves and smiles at me sadly. I don’t know if her sadness is for me or her own loneliness, and it just makes me feel worse.

  “Hey!” He runs over and half hugs me like all the guys do. “You didn’t return any of my calls,” he says.

  I don’t know how to answer.

  “Sorry to hear about Emma.”

  We stand there quietly, letting the cold seep into our feet and up our legs.

  The good thing about a friend like Ryan is you don’t have to explain anything to him. You can just stand next to him and be miserable and somehow he knows all you need is a friend to stand next to and not ask you any questions.

  The door of the school opens, and Sam comes bounding down the steps without a coat on. He trudges across the slushy parking lot in a determined way.

  “What are you guys doing out here?” he asks cheerfully.

  “Contemplating the mystery of such a poorly plowed parking lot,” Ryan says.

  “Ms. Leonard has poor eyesight,” Sam says. “It’s not her fault. Plus the plow doesn’t even fit on her truck right. Her son cobbled it together for her.”

  Sam turns to me. “Hey, Noah. It’s good to see you. Vacation wasn’t the same without you.”

  Normally during vacation, the three of us hang out practically every day, taking turns staying at each other’s house. But this year I guess they did all that without me. What did I do? Sat in my room mostly, and listened to my parents arguing about how Emma could get so sick so fast. About how on earth they’re going to pay the part of Emma’s treatment not covered by insurance. About how they’ll have to find a new therapist when Emma comes home. About basically everything. I stayed in bed and drew, using the paper and pens Ryan gave me for Christmas. I drew and drew and tried not to listen, but I couldn’t help it. Instead of drawing a picture for Ryan like I promised, I filled every page of the sketch pad before I even realized I was drawing so much. Page after page of angry colors fighting one another to fill every corner of white. The same bird flying across the page, not changing, but traveling on, leaving me and my parents alone. The beast from Lord of the Flies chasing it out of our reach. My parents turned into angry monsters, tearing each other apart. And then when I couldn’t draw figures anymore, I filled the pages with colors that felt like fear and hate and loneliness. Pages that looked like how my insides felt. Scared. Helpless. Alone.

  “So . . . how’s Emma doing?” Sam asks quietly.

  I breathe in the winter air and let it sting inside my chest. “OK,” I say.

  Sam looks like he wants to ask more, but Ryan cuts him off. “Let’s go in. It’s freezing out here.”

  We slowly walk across the parking lot, jumping over piles of dirty slush.

  Inside, the school feels smaller somehow. And louder. And happier. Has everyone always been this happy?

  Ms. Cliff comes toward me and asks if I’ll talk to her in her office.

  “I’m fine,” I tell her. Ms. Cliff is notorious for making students talk about their “problems” for hours.

  She puts her hand on my shoulder. “I’d still like to talk to you. Just for a minute.”

  I follow her down the hall. People get quiet as we walk by and look at me with their sad “I feel so sorry for you” faces. But I know as soon as I pass, they go right back to being happy again.

  Ms. Cliff closes her office door and motions for me to sit in the saggy couch against the wall. She sits across from me in a rocking chair.

  She watches me for a minute, then takes a loud deep breath in and out.

  “I was so sorry to hear about Emma’s relapse,” she says, leaning forward.

  Why are you sorry? It’s not your fault, I don’t answer.

  “I know it must be hard at home, with Emma away.”

  I’m sure she thinks it’s hard. But I bet she doesn’t really know what that means. My mom crying all the time. My dad pacing all the time. Me hiding in my room with the Captain all the time. Us sitting at the table for dinner, forcing ourselves to eat, even though swallowing hurts. And all I can think as I feel the food push down my throat is how I wish it was going down Emma’s. I wish she was sitting in the empty chair across from me. I wish we had realized how serious her behavior was, that it wasn’t just “Emma quirks.” I wish we hadn’t trusted her.

  “Noah? Do you want to talk about it?”

  Curly comes out from under the couch. I reach for her, and she touches my finger with her cold wet nose.

  Ms. Cliff waits for me to answer.

  Curly rubs her body against my leg. She’s wearing a green sweater with a red heart on the back.

  I pat my thighs and she jumps up, circles on her pointy feet a few times, then settles down. Her warmth presses through my jeans. I pet her over her sweater and she starts to purr.

  Someone knocks on the door
and opens it before waiting for Ms. Cliff to say “Come in.”

  The Tank peeks his head inside. “Oops. Sorry to interrupt.”

  Curly looks up at the sound of his voice and makes her happy chirping noise.

  “Community Meeting is about to start,” he says. He nods at me. “Hey, Noah. It’s good to see you.”

  “Hey,” I say quietly. I wonder if he means it. Is it really good to see me? Why? My being here doesn’t mean I’m OK or fine or something. It just means I don’t want to be home. It means I couldn’t stand to be there for another second. It means there was nowhere else to go.

  “Go ahead and start without us,” Ms. Cliff says.

  He shuts the door.

  “Noah? I just want you to know that I’m here if you decide you want to talk about anything. About Emma, or about anything you want.”

  I pet Curly harder. She stops purring.

  “We all care about Emma,” Ms. Cliff says. “And I know you must be worried sick. But your mom said she’s getting good care. That she’s making progress.”

  “I guess so.” I haven’t seen or talked to her since we said good-bye at the hospital, just before they took her to New Horizons, also known as “Puker Prison.” That’s what Emma whispered in my ear when we hugged good-bye. “Come visit me at Puker Prison,” she said. “Promise?”

  She looked at us like we were abandoning her. Like we were sending her to some kind of jail. When we were little and we finished eating everything on our plates, my dad would say, “You belong to the Clean Plate Club!” New Horizons is like a jail for all the people who can’t make it into the club.

  The whole drive home from the hospital, my mom cried quietly and my dad tapped his fingers on the steering wheel uncomfortably and I sat in the backseat, staring out the window, feeling like the worst brother in the world.

  “She’s in a safe place,” Ms. Cliff says.

  “Can I go to Community Meeting now?” I ask.

  She does that deep-breath thing again, then stands up.

  “Sure,” she says. “Let’s go.”

  Curly jumps down and mews, then slips under the couch again.

  We start to walk down the hall, but I stop. “I’m just going to get something from my locker,” I say.

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