EXCERPT: “Dandelion: 1988,” by Harper Kingsley
Title: Dandelion: 1988
Author: Harper Kingsley
Rating for excerpt: PG
Warning: sick kid in the hospital
Summary: When Danny was young he had a brother that he loved very much.
Sitting on the lumpy waiting room couch it was a struggle for the small boy not to fidget. His legs still stung from the pinches he’d already earned himself and he didn’t want anymore.
Danny peeked at his mom out of the corner of his eye. She had rolled up a Woman’s Day magazine and kept twisting and twisting it in her two hands, her eyes staring sightlessly at the TV on the far wall. There was some news channel playing, but it wasn’t the local 13 they usually watched.
He thought that maybe the TV was playing cable and he wanted to ask the nurse at the big desk if she could put it on Nickelodeon. They didn’t have cable at home — Mom said it was too expensive — but he’d seen episodes of “You Can’t Do That On Television” at his cousins’ house. They even had HBO and he guessed that was really expensive.
Danny licked his lips, then winced at the sting of his chapped flesh. His mom had gotten him a little jar of Carmex but he hated it. He didn’t like having it all over his finger and the smell made his eyes water. Paul said it was because he was a baby, but Mom always told him to hush his mouth. Then Danny would smirk and Paul would stomp off to the bedroom mad.
“When are they bringing Paul back out?” he whispered, then braced himself for another “Shut up” pinch.
He almost wished for the pinch when his mom’s face twisted up and she started sobbing into her hands, the magazine pressing against the side of her face. She’d been so tired lately and he knew something was really wrong but no one would tell him anything. Now they were back at the hospital again and he knew it was really bad.
“I’m sorry, Mommy,” he cried, tears spilling from his eyes. “Please don’t cry. I’m sorry.” He patted at her arm, his palm itching from the rough scuff of her wool coat. It was an ugly green color, but she’d been really happy when she’d found it at the Salvation Army. That’s when she’d gotten them their bunk-beds too with her second paycheck from her new job. The first check had gone to pay off Mr. Landry, their landlord.
He didn’t really like her coat because it made his skin itch, but she’d been so happy that day. She’d laughed and sang silly songs as she baked them chocolate cupcakes. It had been one of the best days of his whole life and things had been good after that. Until Paul got sick again.
Moving slowly, Danny climbed up on his knees and wrapped his arms around his mom. He buried his face in her curly brown hair — she permed it herself from a box kit and he’d gotten to help her the last time. He’d liked winding the strands of her hair around the plastic curlers and snapping them in place. The chemicals she’d squirted on her hair had made the whole bathroom stink, but she’d smiled so brightly when he’d said her hair looked pretty.
She wasn’t smiling now and her usually strong arms felt thin and weak around him. He hugged her as tight as he could, trying to tell her that he was strong and brave and he would take care of her this time.
He rested his cheek against her curly hair and breathed in the scent of her — sweet smelling lotion, the nearly copper penny smell of her makeup, and the cigarettes she tried to pretend she didn’t smoke. “I’ve got you. I’ve got you,” he said, patting her shoulder blade. It was what she always said to him and it made him feel safe.
She just let him hold her, something she rarely did. His mom was always in motion–cooking, cleaning, dancing–though in her tired moments she would wrap her arms around him and hug him close, keeping him safe. She loved to hold him, but she refused to be held. If he startled her, she would flinch away and he would feel sick in his stomach.
She was letting him hold her now and he knew she was really upset. Paul had gotten sick more and more lately and he’d fallen and hurt his leg. Danny had seen it, the whole lower half of his left leg was nearly black. Mom had screamed when she saw it and wrapped it up with a smelly rag that was supposed to help and hurried them out of the apartment and into a cab where they rushed to the hospital.
The nurses had taken one look at Paul and zoomed him away. That had been a long time ago.
“Don’t worry, Mom. It’s going to be all right,” Danny said.
She huffed a laugh and pulled out of his arms. Her arms twisted around his and suddenly he was being pulled into the circle of her embrace and shifted around until he was sitting on her lap. He felt her nuzzle against the top of his head and she held him so close he could feel her heartbeat through the layers of her shirt.
Her hand began patting his back in an absentminded gesture as she shifted him to cradle him in her arms. He felt a flare of embarrassment at being held like a baby, but he didn’t try to pull away even though there were other people in the waiting room. He’d let himself be treated like a baby forever if it made her feel better. She needed him.
When she began to rock him a little, he wanted to be irritated; instead he closed his eyes and listened to her heart beating through her skin. The pat of her hand felt like another heartbeat, one that he could hear and feel all through his back in a gentle rhythm.
He couldn’t help yawning. It was the middle of the night and the hospital had been cold, but his mom was warm and safe.
He fell asleep to her patting his back, pausing only a moment to pull her coat around them both. The wool prickled his cheek but he didn’t care.
Danny woke to find himself lying on the couch with his mom’s coat covering him. He lifted his head and blinked his eyes as he looked around. His toes flexed in his socks; his mom must have taken his shoes off.
His mom was standing with a doctor, the man’s stethoscope hanging from the pocket of his white coat. He was tall and balding, his white-gray hair just a circle around his head, and he wore a mustard yellow shirt and a dark blue tie.
Danny was confused to see the doctor hold his mom by the upper arms with both hands. He was saying something, but it was too soft for Danny to hear. Whatever he said must have been bad though because Mom started crying, big fat trickling tears that poured from her eyes and dripped off the end of her chin.
Danny scrambled off the couch, dropping his mom’s coat behind him, and ran across the floor in his socked feet to wrap his arms around his mother’s waist, laying his smooth cheek against her back. He didn’t know what was happening, but he knew it was bad.
He wondered if Paul was dead.
Then he was crying too. He couldn’t help it and the more he tried to stop, the more the tears came. All the worry and stress filling him up inside needed somewhere to go.
He felt his mom turn and wrap her arms around him, but she was more focused on the doctor. “When do you need to do it?”
“As soon as we can arrange an OR,” the doctor said.
“Can we… can we see him?” Mom asked, her voice cracking.
Danny lifted his head from his mom’s chest and turned to look at the doctor. The man looked uncomfortable and busy and Danny thought that maybe the doctor would rather run away than talk to them.
“You can have a short visit,” the doctor said, then spared a glance toward Danny. “We can have one of the nurse’s keep an eye on your son.”
“No, I want to see Paul too!” Danny insisted loudly.
“Son, I don’t think you…”
“He stays with me,” Mom said firmly, her hands clenching on Danny’s shoulders. “Please, can we see Paul?”
The doctor raked a hand through his hair. “I’ll take you to him.”
Danny held his mom’s hand as they followed the doctor through the double doors and down endless seeming corridors. It was nighttime, but Danny still saw a whirlwind of people and flashing electronic lights and there were so many strange smells and sounds that he gripped her hand tighter to keep from being lost. Everything was so frightening here and he wished they could go home.
But Paul needed him to be strong.
They walked until they reached a room with the brick red door closed. There were lots of open windows around looking into rooms with people attached to all kinds of machines and resting in frightening poses on bendy hospital beds. Everything seemed scary and large and Danny stuck close to his mom’s side, hating the cold medicine smell that covered everything.
The doctor opened the door and Mom tugged Danny inside. The room was bright white and Paul looked pale and sweaty on the hospital bed, a thin blue blanket tucked up around his chest.
Paul smiled when he saw them, though it was tired and small. “Mom. Danny. I’m glad you’re here.”
Danny glanced up to Mom when she didn’t say anything, just silently led him toward the bed and released his hand to reach out toward Paul. She didn’t say anything, so he felt like he had to. “Why would we be anywhere else?” Danny asked. “We’re always here when you’re in the hospital.”
Paul gave him a very faint grin. “You’re getting pretty quick, little brother.”
Danny sniffled, trying to keep from crying. He rubbed his eyes with his hands and tried to only look at Paul’s face. He felt like whatever they were covering with the blanket must look pretty bad.
Moving slowly, Danny walked around to the other side of the bed and carefully leaned over to give Paul a kiss on the cheek. He heard the doctor loudly tell him to be careful, but Mom hushed him because she knew Danny was always really careful around Paul. He knew his brother was delicate, not tough like him.
“I was scared,” Danny said, touching the ends of Paul’s messy brown hair with just his fingers. “Why didn’t you tell me you were hurt?”
“‘Cause it didn’t hurt,” Paul said. There was a pinched look to his face and his blue eyes were dark rimmed like bruises. There were tubes running up and down his left arm and his chest looked skinnier than ever in the thin hospital gown.
“But it hurts now?” Danny cocked his head.
“Yeah,” Paul admitted, “it hurts now.”
“Oh baby.” Mom held Paul’s right hand against her cheek and though she always tried not to cry in front of Paul, fat tears trickled down her cheeks.
“It’s okay, Mom,” Paul said in his pain-thinned, old man’s voice. “I’m not scared.”
“Scared of what?” Danny asked. He glanced at his mom, but her eyes were squeezed tight shut. He looked at Paul, his older brother that was the bravest person he knew. “What’s happening?”
Paul sighed, but his blue eyes were clear when he looked at Danny. “They’re going to cut off my leg.”
“What?” Danny glanced down the blanket at where Paul’s leg was covered. “Why would they do that?”
“Because there’s too much trapped old blood and they need to cut it off to save my life,” Paul said. “If they don’t do it soon I could die.”
“But…” Danny licked his lips. “I thought it was really dangerous if you got cut.”
“It is,” Paul said, “but they’re doctors and they can give me medicine during the surgery.”
“But your leg,” Danny moaned. His face twisted and he squeezed his hands into tight fists.
Paul’s pale lips curved in a slight smile and he slowly reached out with his left hand to cup Danny’s cheek. Wires and cords and tubes pumping liquid would not stop him from comforting Danny, that’s how strong he was. That’s why he was Danny’s hero.
“My leg or my life,” Paul said. “I can get along with one leg. It’s not a hard choice at all.”
Mom began to sob loudly and laid Paul’s hand back down so she could cover her mouth. “I… I’ll be right back,” her voice broke. She hurried toward the door and disappeared into the hallway, the doctor following her out.
“I need you to do me a favor,” Paul whispered. His eyes blazed like trapped blue fire in the sallow paleness of his face.
“Anything,” Danny breathed, staring into his brother’s eyes.
Paul licked his dry lips. “If I don’t make it, you gotta look after Mom. I don’t think she’ll take it well, so you gotta watch after her.”
“No,” Danny cried.
“Danny,” Paul said sternly, “I need you to promise me. You can’t be scared and act like a baby. Mom’ll need you.”
Tears and snot mixed on Danny’s upper lip, but he nodded. “I’ll take care of her,” he said. “I promise.”
Paul smiled at him. “Good. It makes me feel better because I know I can count on you.”
“You’re… you’re not really going to die, are you?” Danny asked.
“I’m going to try not to,” Paul said, “but sometimes bad stuff happens even when you don’t want it to.”
“But you’ll try your best to live, right?” Danny needed the reassurance, needed to know that Paul wasn’t going to give up.
“Of course I’m going to try my best.” Paul pointed toward a red cup sitting on a counter across the room. “Can you bring me that?”
Danny trotted across the room and picked up the cup that rattled with ice and brought it back to his brother. “Do you need help?”
“I’ve got it.” Paul’s hands shook as he carefully peeled the lid off the cup and reached in to fish out a single ice cube. He stuck the ice in his mouth and audibly sighed in relief as he sucked on it. “My mouth gets so dry.”
Danny leaned against the side of the bed, watching to make sure he didn’t hurt his brother. “Are they really going to cut off your leg? That’s the only thing they can do? They can’t just give you medicine to make you better?”
Paul ate another piece of ice. “I talked to the doctor and he showed me what my leg looks like and what it means. Yeah, they’ve gotta cut it off to save my life.”
Danny licked his lips. “Are you scared?”
“The scaredest I’ve ever been in my life.” Paul huffed a laugh. “Sometimes, Danny, you still have to do things even if they’re really scary. I just… I hope it doesn’t hurt too much.”
Danny saw Paul’s lower lip quiver, but he also saw that Paul was trying hard to be strong. He looked around, but Mom was still gone.
He looked at the side of the bed and Paul trying so hard to pretend that he wasn’t upset. “Can I lay down with you?” he asked.
Paul blinked, then smiled. It was a small and tired version of his usual grin, but it was real. “Sure, just be careful climbing up.”
Moving carefully, Danny climbed up on the bed. He settled on his stomach and tucked his hands under himself so he didn’t bump Paul.
He’d seen the way his brother winced when the bed was jostled, but he also knew Paul would be happier not to be alone. So he nestled close, but made sure his arms and feet didn’t knock against Paul.
He hated the smell of the hospital, hated that Paul was always so sick all the time.
Danny didn’t really understand what was wrong with Paul’s blood or what “hemophilia” really meant, but he knew there were trips to the hospital. Paul needed to be treated delicately because he would bruise at even the smallest bump and it would hurt him for days and days. There were time when Paul would have bruises all over his face and they would appear by themselves sometime while he was sleeping. And Paul had to take all kinds of medicines that he said were awful.
More than anything, Danny wished that Paul wasn’t sick. It was an old wish, one he’d thought many times, but never spoke aloud, not where Paul or Mom could hear. He didn’t know why, but he was afraid to ever say the words because he felt as though something terrible would happen.
Paul was sick, but it was something they never talked about. Paul would take his medicine and Danny would always try to help his big brother, but they never talked about why Paul was sick. It was just something that had always existed.
Danny felt Paul’s hand rest on his shoulder and he held perfectly still, closing his eyes.
He breathed in the stink of the hospital and felt Paul’s hand as a weight against him. He was tired and confused and something horrible and permanent was going to be done to Paul. There was so much happening all at one time and it was really late at night and he didn’t know what he was supposed to do.
“Oh no, Danny get down from there!” came his mom’s voice. She sounded upset and he wanted to get up, but he was too tired to do anything more than open his eyelids for a second before they pinned themselves back down.
“It’s all right, Mom,” Paul whispered. “He’s not hurting anything.”
“You shouldn’t have let him up there,” Mom said, but her voice was softer, less sharp. “Are you okay, honey?”
“It’s all right, Mom. We knew something like this could happen. Well, not like this, but we knew something could happen.” Paul gave a watery sigh. “I don’t want to die, so I’ll lose a leg instead.”
Mom sounded close, on the other side of the bed, when she said, “How did you get so strong?”
Paul gave a faint chuckle. “I must have had a really great mom.”
There was the sound of a muffled sniffle. “Oh baby,” cloth rustled and Danny pictured Mom hugging Paul, “I can’t believe something like this could happen. It just seems as though we always have such rotten luck.” She sucked in a breath. “They say they have to amputate your leg and there’s no other choice.”
“It’s going to be all right,” Paul sounded like a grown up, not a fourteen year old kid. He was amazingly calm and Danny couldn’t help being soothed into slumber by the safety Paul made him feel.
The sound of Paul and Mom’s voices rose and fell around him. He could feel the tension and fear, but he was just a little boy and it had been near his bedtime before they even came to the hospital and it was long passed by now. With the sounds of their voices around him, he could ignore the alien sound of machines and focus on the sound of his brother and mother and not being alone.