I can hear the whispers predicting my death. I've always been able to hear them, even though I pretend I can't. I hear them now.
"It seems unlikely she'll make it to Christmas," the doctor says.
"She will." Mama's voice is hoarse. It sounds like that when she's crying.
"We have to be realistic ... ." Papa says.
"Don't! It's not her time. She's only ten. She'll make it."
"She's not getting any better," the doctor says. His voice is quiet but firm.
"Then make her better."
But he can't make me better. No one can.
I arrive home after my brother gets out of school.
"Hey munchkin." He smiles and gathers me into a tight hug. His blond curls fall into his eyes.
"Hi." I bury my face in his chest. I feel better when he's around.
I can hear Mama and Papa arguing in the kitchen, a jumble of muffled shrieks and roars. I don't bother trying to make out their words anymore.
My brother frowns and grabs my hand. "Let's go outside. I'll draw you a picture."
"Okay." My fingers feel small in his grasp. He glances briefly at our hands. Something flashes in his eyes, but he only shakes his head and leads me out the door.
He's always drawing, my brother. Mostly he'll draw me. Playing at the beach. Riding an airplane. Laughing. Healthy. But today I want him to draw an angel, so he does.
"Why an angel?"
"I want to be prepared."
"For when I go to heaven."
He doesn't say anything, but the pencil continues to fly across the page.
"Do you think angels will be waiting for me?"
"Do you think they'll like me?"
"How do you know?"
"Because your guardian angel will be waiting for you. He's been watching over you since the day you were born."
I look at my feet and squish my toes in the soft grass. My brother knows everything; he's just started high school. But I think he's wrong this time. It doesn't make sense to guard me. I'm too sick.
A shadow creeps over my bare toes. A boy in a pair of faded jeans stands before us.
"Hey." He says.
"Hey." My brother replies.
"Yeah, just give me a sec to grab my notes." My brother snaps his sketchbook shut and heads into the house. "I'll be right back."
The boy glances down at me, but his gaze darts away when I return his look. He shifts from one foot to the other. The air feels heavy as the discomfort sets in. He knows about me.
"Your brother and I are working on a project for school," he says.
I smile briefly in response.
"So, he was drawing for you?"
"Cool. He's pretty good. I bet he'll become an artist someday."
I bring up a hand to shield my eyes from the sun as I continue to stare up at him. His feet refuse to stand still.
"I'd like to be a police officer. My dad's one." The words tumble out of his mouth. Anything to prevent the silence. "What about you? What do you want to be when you grow up?"
"I won't grow up."
"Yeah?" he chuckles nervously. A growing pink stains his cheeks while he thinks carefully about his next words. "I get that. Being a kid is pretty great."
That isn't what I mean, but there's no need to explain myself.
We both turn towards the thump of my front door closing.
"I'll be back in time for dinner," my brother says, shouldering his backpack.
I nod, and wave goodbye.
Grandma passed away today. The tears keep spilling out of Mama's eyes. I want to kiss them away. Her face is red and puffy. It doesn't suit her. I wonder if that's how Mama will look when I die.
"How long do you think Mama will be sad?" I ask my brother. We're dressed in black. The sickly sweet scent of lilies makes me dizzy.
"One year for the tears, and one year for her to heal."
"And then she'll be happy again?"
I peek at Mama out of the corner of my eye. A handkerchief covers her nose. She isn't even trying to wipe her tears anymore.
I want her to be happy.
I sit with my brother in the other room, but can see my parents through the glass. They're arguing with the doctor, but he just shakes his head. Papa is pinching the bridge of his nose. He always does that when he hears bad news. Mama's eyes are as big as a bug's. She's staring desperately at Papa, silently begging him to fix it.
My test results must not be good. My heart sinks and my stomach tightens into a knot. "I don't want to die."
"You won't die." My brother pulls me close. He's always there for me. For every appointment, operation, every tear. He's my rock in a world of shifting pebbles.
I lean my head on his shoulder. "Everybody dies."
He gives my shoulder a small squeeze.
"I don't want to be alone," I whisper.
"No." I shake my head.
His eyes linger on me for a moment, as if he knows what I'm thinking. "You won't be alone. Your guardian angel will be waiting for you."
"But I am."
"Just think about all the good times you've had, and keep thinking about them. You don't want your last moments to be bad."
I squeeze my eyes shut and think about Mama's perfume. She always smells like orange blossoms. I think about Papa teaching me to play the piano, and how it always ended with us laughing and banging on the keyboard. I think about all the pictures my brother ever drew me. I keep them in a box beneath my bed.
I breathe in deeply and open my eyes. The knot in my stomach loosens. I smile at my brother. He returns the smile, but it seems forced. There's a sadness lurking in his crystal blue eyes.
"Don't worry," I say. "I'm okay now. It's okay."
He blinks until the twinkle returns to his eyes. "Good. Just remember that I love you."
"I love you too."
I should have seen it coming. I saw the sadness in the hospital. Now, a week later, he's gone. I wonder if he was alone or if an angel took him home.
He didn't leave a note for my parents, but he left one for me.
The paper crinkles as I open it with shaky fingers. It's his drawing of my angel. He never got a chance to give it to me. Instead, he left it in the box beneath my bed, where I'd be sure to find it. I trace the halo floating above the angel's mass of light curls. My fingers brush over the sharp nose. It's a little too big for his face, but somehow it suits him perfectly. His eyes seem to stare right at me, hinting at a ready welcome that matches his wide grin. His feathered wings spread majestically behind him. He holds out one outstretched hand, waiting for me to take it.
I feel the burn of tears in my eyes, but all I can do is laugh. A rich laughter that bubbles from the pit of my belly.
It's him. My guardian angel.
I cried a year of tears until I could cry no more.
The doctor calls us into his office. "I have some good news. A treatment has been discovered. It's still very new, and isn't completely out of the investigative stages, but I think it could greatly help your daughter."
Mama throws her arms around me and Papa sighs a breath of relief, smoothing a stray hair from my face.
"Once the treatment becomes available, would you like to take it?"
"Yes, of course." My parents nod.
All eyes turn to me. They're too shocked to speak, but the question why burns on their lips.
"I ... I don't know. I'm scared. What if it does more harm than good? What do we even know about it? You said it's still in the investigative stages. It might not even work ..." Every excuse I can think of falls from my lips in an almost unintelligible babble.
"Don't worry, munchkin. It'll be okay. It can only help."
They don't understand.
"No, I won't do it."
The questions keep coming, and I keep lying. I can't tell them the truth. I can't tell them he's waiting for me.
The second year is for healing, but I don't heal. The treatment failed, and at twelve years old I'm again admitted to the hospital. Papa is pinching the bridge of his nose, and Mama's eyes are as big as a bug's. My test results aren't good. This time I'm certain, but I'm not afraid.
I see a blinding light. I try to reach for it and feel a gentle tug lift me from my body. I look back and watch my torso deflate as I let out my last breath. I walk towards the light. I think I can make out a silhouette in front of me. The shadow of an outstretched arm ... .
I see him. Blond curls fall in his face. His sharp nose fits perfectly between crystal blue eyes, and a warm smile shines brighter than the light behind him.
He's here, just like he said. Waiting for me to take his hand.
So I do.
“How about Clarine?”
“Clarine Beckett… I like that. Where did you find it?”
Otto handed Katherine the tablet. She leaned it against her ample midsection, next to the potential Clarine.
“The one-dollar name list? Are you kidding me?”
“Come on, one name is as good as another, as long as it’s one we like.”
“And if she finds out ten years from now that we paid a buck for her name, how do you think she’ll feel?”
Otto pursed his lips and reminded himself that Katherine was more emotional than usual. Finally, he said, “We didn’t pay anything for Jayden’s name. He doesn’t care.”
“There was no National Name Registry when he was born. That’s why there are five Jaydens in his kindergarten. If we could go back—”
“Well, we can’t. And I really don’t think we should spend five hundred for Alexandra.”
The government’s attempt to create an even distribution of names by limiting each name to 800 babies per year began shortly after their son was born. Names were free of charge in the first two years of the program, but popular names like Jacob and Sophia disappeared within the first few weeks of January. Otto wanted to punch the enterprising bureaucrat who suggested using the registry to generate revenue.
Katherine scrolled through the one-dollar list. “God, these names. Brunhilde? Hecuba? No wonder they’re giving them away.”
“You liked Clarine until you found out how much it costs.”
Katherine closed her eyes. “Look, when I was in school, everything I had was hand-me-down or from the bargain bin, and the other kids knew it. And they let me know they knew it. Can you imagine her going through that, about her name? Her very self?”
“Katherine…” Otto held her hand and stroked the place where her ring had been until her fingers grew too swollen. “Katherine, Katie, Kate. Sweetheart. I love you by every one of your names. I would love you if you were called Pickle-Pops.” He kissed her on the forehead as she furrowed her brow. “Whatever name we pick will come to mean her, our daughter. She’ll be priceless to us no matter what. Why should we let the cruelty of other kids decide her name? Kids can find plenty to be cruel about. We can’t guard her against that, even if we do call her Alexandra. Besides, whatever money we save on her name we can use to start a college fund. Wouldn’t that be better?”
Katherine sat up. “Nicknames! Of course, why didn’t I think of it before! Yes, Clarine will be perfect.”
“Wonderful!” Otto hugged her, then pulled away. “Wait, why?”
“Claire costs four hundred dollars this year. Hardly anyone will see Clarine on the birth certificate.” She patted her abdomen. “Welcome to the world, little Claire.”
English writer Sandra Stoner-Mitchell is the author of nine books available from amazon.com