(Author's Note: I don't write many short stories, but my local writing group had a prompt for the first line of a story, and I took it and used it, along with a germ of an idea taken from an Andrew Peterson song, Coral Castle,"'I don't need her love to love her all I can." I love the way it turned out, one of the few shorts I'm actually proud of. Enjoy! ~Kay)
He hadn’t seen her since the day they left high-school. He had tried. So many times, he had tried. He would call but she never answered. He left messages, never knowing whether or not she would give them the time of day. But he never stopped trying, never stopped hoping. He never stopped.
With just enough money to start college, he studied hard and long to earn his degree, and found his calling as a low-level detective, sorting through the debris of city life. Eventually, he made something of himself. Not a fancy chief of police or anything so glorious as that, but a respected officer with a comfortable wage and a small team to take charge of. They were like family to him. Little brothers and sisters for him to look after. Siblings he cared for in ways none of them ever saw.
And then there were the others. All those hundreds of people living around him. Some would have called them ordinary. Some thought any person’s life, outside of their own, was mundane and worthless. He knew better. And so he saved them. From petty thieves and numbing drugs, from domestic abuse and kidnapping vans. He was nothing special and he knew it well. Sometimes he failed. He never found the answer or he did and it was too late. But he kept trying. He never stopped.
Because, with all those ordinary people in the world that he spent his life saving, there was one other person that he hadn’t. He worked extra hours and spent a hundred nights awake and anxious because the one person he should have saved, the one time where it really mattered, with the one thing he really cared about, he had failed.
See, he couldn’t save her.
His sister. His little sister, one year his younger, but so much more clever than he. She had always been a year ahead in her classes and they graduated at the same time. They had laughed and run together as children, always looking out for one another because that’s what families do.
And then she stopped. She stopped talking to him, stopped laughing, stopped running. Instead, she seemed to turn away, just very slowly, and started walking off in a direction he could not follow. It was natural, in growing up, for the world to take different shapes and for people, even siblings, to choose different paths. He just never imagined it would lead her so far away.
And he kept calling, sent her birthday cards, left messages at Christmas.
With all the hundreds of lives out in the city he was sworn to protect, with all of their problems and pains and fears, it was the thought of her, his little sister, that kept him up at night and kept him going each day the sun rose.
Someone else would have let it go. The family ties had been broken, cut by her angry words, and he was not to blame and it could not be helped. She didn’t love him anymore, didn’t recognize him as her brother, didn’t allow any thoughts of him to break through. Someone else would have stopped. And yet he didn’t.
Why didn’t he just stop? Why didn’t he give up and let the memories of all those he had saved be the ones to comfort him as darkness fell, and why didn’t he let that comfort lull him to sleep?
Because he knew and had known, so long ago before he realized she had abandoned him, that he didn’t need her to love him. He didn’t need her to remember her brother and remember he was her closest friend, the one that stuck by her when other friends did not. He did not need her love to love her with everything he had. It was a sacrifice with no reward. A harsh duty with no rest.
And he kept on. He never stopped. Because there was always just the chance. Just the smallest chance that someday she would remember. Someday she would pick up the phone and it would no longer be dead air he spoke with. It would probably never happen and he truly did not expect it to, but wherever that chance still kept hold of his hope, he kept hold of the chance. And because he was her family, her brother, her friend, he kept loving her and she never saw it.
Day after day he went out to save the world. It wasn’t because he was such a good person and it was never because he was some sort of hero. It was for the reason that whenever he returned a missing child to her parents, or watched his team comfort a family, or when he closed a folder and filed it away, he saw her face. In his mind, even though it was them that he was helping, it was her that he saved. Time after time after time he kept saving them and wondered if it would ever truly be her standing before him again. He kept on working and kept on saving people and kept on hoping. He never stopped.
And then he was lying in a hospital cot with tubes surrounding him and machines chirping like a hundred artificial heartbeats and maybe that's what they were. The ceiling was white and hard like a crypt and maybe that’s what it was. His mind was brittle as chalk, as murky as lake water, and perhaps that was all that was left of him.
Doctors told him he'd been in a hit-and-run. Someone had not been paying attention, or maybe they had done it on purpose, just because they were in a car that was fast and he was in tennis shoes that were not. Maybe it was someone who knew him and raged against his work, and perhaps it wasn't. They didn't know, couldn't say.
And he kept seeing her face, as if it had been her behind the wheel. Though he had never seen it coming, he saw her and she was driving.
The second time he woke after the car's impact, he felt afraid. Fear in his chest that hurt worse than his injuries because he realized he had run out of time and realized that he had failed again. For so long he had gone without hesitation, holding out for the day of light he wished would be there in the end and now he found it had not come. He saw his every case as a detective for what it was and knew that he had not ever saved her. Not once.
The doctors told him he would live and he believed them, and yet he was still afraid. Afraid because, though it was not the end, it felt like the end and was the beginning of the end. He might not have survived, and if he hadn’t survived then that future day of light was a phantom on the wind and nothing more.
So in the dark of that room, with the artificial hearts beating into the silence, he choked past the medicines to whisper, “I love you.” Because he had never stopped.
And in-between the electronic pulses and the murmur of physician voices, he heard her whispering back, “I'm sorry.”
Because she was there.
She sat beside his bed and smiled with more sadness in her eyes than tears could ever convey. She sat there holding all his letters and his cards and his notes, and the messages she had recorded because she needed to hear the sound of his speaking and be angry for its noise. She explained with a shaking voice that in the dark of the night, when the weights fell across her shoulders, when the pain of what had been was all too close, or when her dreams had given up their glamours and shattered into dust, his words had kept her going. They gave her breath and an ounce of courage, she said.
In the middle of that hospital she told him that she remembered when they had been family, when they had laughed, and when they had run. He didn't know how she had gotten to this place where the machines healed him, or to the place where the memories were not so sour, and he didn't care.
He was glad, though, when she let him hear how. “I was traveling,” her voice informed him, “With my photography job, you know.” He didn't know. She had never said. “And I saw the accident on the news—I was just passing through. I forgot that you lived here, but the police were talking to the reporters and they were concerned and I...I was afraid.”
He didn't have the strength to tell her that he was afraid too, or to begin to tell her why, so he just listened as she spoke, her words tumbling out like rocks in a landslide. Quick, unmeasured, strong, breaking.
He had forgotten what she sounded like, what she looked like, his little sister. All his pictures of her were so old. She had grown, changed. Her hair was a different color. But she was still his sister.
And she leaned forward, suddenly breaking off from her string of words. She looked at him in the eye and he had forgotten what that felt like.
“It's my turn,” she said in a voice that was hardly a sound.
“All those nights, those phone calls, those Christmases I thought I had made so grand. I tried not to listen to you because I was still so angry with you. I couldn't even remember why. Why was I so angry? All those times…All those times, you were saving me.” she whispered. “And now it's my turn.”
So he lay there in a hospital bed and the wounds that hurt the most were the ones deep in his chest, deep where no medical device could go. They throbbed, but it was good. Because this was healing.
The fear ebbed as his sister talked and he felt sleep slowly steal across the floor towards him. She talked about being angry with him, of always trying to hate him. And he thought about saving her, of saving every other person around because he couldn't reach her, no matter how hard he tried.
And now she was here. And he was loving her, he was hoping for her, he was trying for her. He had never stopped. Now, he realized, she was saving him in the way that he had so longed to save her. She was saving him because he had never stopped.