Alice Solent did not buy the chicken; instead she bought porridge from the Chinese restaurant near the apartment she and her family (which currently consisted of her mother and herself given that her brother was hospitalized) rented. She kept the remaining thirty-five dollars to herself, not trusting her vice-induced mother. Only last month fifty dollars were missing from Alice’s safe box, money for the rent they had fallen behind on paying. Alice screamed at her mother that night, shaking her so badly that her poor mama wailed loudly enough to have the neighbors banging on their door and threatening to call 911. From that time on, Alice kept the money hidden, changing of spots every so often.
Alice opened the dilapidated door to their apartment. She squinted into the room, adjusting her eyes to the darkness, and found her mother laying on the couch, half-naked, with empty beer bottles littering the floor, and cigar butts buried deep into the carpet. Alice’s mother was the woman she vowed never to become: so overcome with depression that she forgot to care for her children. Her body was thin and her skin unhealthy. She hadn’t left the house for four months, except for her occasional midnight visits to the pubs where she found beer and cigarettes.
She lighted a candle and set it on the table. Then harshly shook her mother awake.
“I bought some porridge, eat something.” There was no kindness in her voice, only duty to preserve the woman who gave her birth.
“I am not hungry,” her mother said.
“I don’t care.” Alice snapped. “You have to eat something or you’ll get sick. I don’t want to end up paying for your hospital bills too.”
Her mother didn’t flinch at her comment, just said dreamily, “your temperament is like your father’s. He was always the practical one, no sentimentalism. I wished he was back, everything would be better.”
Yeah, you wouldn’t be in the house all the time doing nothing. Daniel and I would’ve had a normal family who cared for us. Alice wanted to tell her mother that, but instead she said. “He is not coming back and we have to deal with it.”
Her father disappeared six months ago, just two weeks after Daniel was diagnosed with chronic leukemia. The Solent family was barely scraping by; the future hospital bills had clearly scared the hell out of Mr. Solent, enough for him to leave his family. Their mother entered depression two months later, after having cried her eyes out. Only Alice remained sane, both physically and mentally (at least for now), and she took it upon herself that she will survive.
Her mother pushed herself from the couch, arranging her skirt around her legs. She gingerly took the Styrofoam cup and sipped a little bit, savoring the flavor of mushy rice and broth. It took months of persuasion for Alice to get her mother to eat and clean herself, it was all done on Daniel’s pleas, from the hospital bed. She and Daniel often joked about Daniel’s cancer perks, many of them included him begging her to take care of their dear mother. Not so dear to her, anyway. Daniel was always happy to see their mother though. It was not so dark yet, and she had not seen Daniel in two days.
“When you finish, change your clothes, we’re going to visit your son.”
“My little baby, where is he?” Her mother’s memory sometimes relapsed. The question was innocently asked, but Alice was annoyed.
“Your little baby is suffering in the hospital, from a deadly disease, and you’re just slouching here when you should be comforting him!” Alice shouted.
Her mother’s eyes welled with tears; but Alice didn’t care, she went into her room to change and get the rest of her money. When she walked into the living room, her mother was just looking blankly at the wall.
“Fine, stay here and I hope you rot to death, at least it would be one mouth less to feed!” Alice said before slamming shut their front door. She ran out of the complex and caught the next bus to the hospital. She regretted her harsh words, but she was sure her mother wasn’t listening. The stop closest to the hospital was coming up; she got off the bus, and walked hurriedly into the hospital. Patient’s visit would end soon.
White-washed walls, sterile rooms, doctors and nurses hurrying about, life and death, joy and sorrow, tears and laughs, were witnessed every day in this hospital. Her heart thumped in her ribcage as the elevator took her to the fourth floor of Children’s Hospital; her legs carried her to room 407. Inside the room, she saw her brother prostrated in bed while a nurse pushed an IV tube in his arm. The healthy child Alice knew was now as sickly looking as herself and their mother.
“Look who’s here Daniel, your sister.” The nurse said cheerily. She rubbed Daniel’s bald head and stood. On her way out, Alice saw sympathy in her eyes. The nurse squeezed her shoulder, a sign of support and strength. Everybody had grown fond of Daniel in this hospital. His kind doctor was nice enough to waive his fees and let them pay it little by little.
“Hey kid, how are you feeling?” Her voice broke as he stretched his thin arms out to her. She walked to the bed and let him nurse her battered heart. During that moment, nothing in her life mattered more than saving her brother. She must continue fighting for him.
“The nurses are treating me well. The doctor said he is going to try a new procedure and he needs mom to sign some forms for him. Will you try harder and make her come next time?”
Her ten-year old brother had known she tried and failed to bring her mother today. He had a special ability to read her face and her heart.
“Yeah, even if I have to drag her out of the house, I will bring her to you.”
Daniel smiled and pressed his face on the hollow of her neck. “I’m happy to see you.”
And they just stayed there, hugging each other, until the moment Daniel started coughing up blood. Alice panicked and frantically called the nurse. She was ushered out of the room while Daniel was writhing in pain, clutching his chest. She could do nothing, just stared in helpless horror as her brother was suffering.
Oh God, it should’ve been me on the brink of death and not him!
She didn’t know she was banging her forehead on the wall, until Dr. Moore stopped her.
“Your brother is okay now, his lungs filled with water, but he is alright.”
Alice just nodded numbly. “Is he going to survive till the next procedure?” She couldn’t go through this anymore; she could tell her brother was suffering even though he tried to sound cheerful.
Dr. Moore hesitated. “I want to implement the new procedure as soon as possible, but, it’s costly… I know I promised I’ll help you and your brother…”
“Please Dr. Moore, just please, save him. About the money, don’t worry; my father who is working overseas is going to send some soon.”
“It’s not the money, Alice, it’s his heart. He is too young…”
“Don’t give up on him.” Alice begged. Her brother wasn’t a waste of space, unlike his mother. He was worth fighting for.
Dr. Moore sighed. “I will do all that is possible. Rest, little one.” He patted her shoulder and went into the room.
Alice silently said goodbye to Daniel and walked to the elevator. On her way there, she saw a man in white suit out of the corner of her eyes. He had something heavy and laden with gold in his wrist. It must cost a fortune. He was asleep, slumped on the couch.
He wouldn’t notice. Alice thought desperately. If I’m extra careful, he would feel nothing. If he wakes up, I can probably outrun him.
She took a deep breath and walked silently towards him.