If you know the novels of Kirstin Cronn-Mills, especially her latest “Beautiful Music for Ugly Children,” just out with Flux, you won’t be surprised that this short story “Header” is incredibly moving and intense. PLUS it’s a story in verse. How lucky can we get?
By Kirstin Cronn-Mills
“Tallie.” You’re awake
for the first time all day.
“You have to get me out of here.”
“You’re all hooked up to machines and crap.”
“I know. But we gotta try.”
“No way. The nurses will kill me first,
and Mom and Dad will do it next.
Not to mention the doctors.”
“You have to.”
I close my eyes.
You don’t ask for much.
Do you remember
the mud puddle fight?
The moms were inside, chatting
as moms do, not paying any attention
to the warm April air and the fact
that we were restless and
needed something to do
that didn’t involve mud, but hey,
that’s what we had,
so that’s what we did.
For a while, it was you and Jack
against me and Kasey,
and the brother-sister war was on.
Nobody won, and we switched sides
over and over again. Sometimes Jack and Kasey against us,
sometimes Jack and me against you and Kasey.
We found bricks and threw them in,
making dark splashes on our shirts,
then handfuls of splooshy mud
that stuck to our jeans and shoes.
You were—seven? You and Kasey the same age,
me and Jack were eight. Or maybe
we were eight and nine. I don’t know.
We were the biggest surprise on the block that day
when the moms came out to look
and found us in the alley, covered in muck
so brown and sticky
they made us take off our clothes—like all of them—
and they brought us beach towels,
so we weren’t naked,
making small shelters with their arms.
All we could do was laugh.
All they could do was growl.
Or was it stored in the part of your brain
they took out?
Hospital beds seem huge
and they’re really not.
Or maybe you’re just small.
But not in real life—you’re
kind of tall, actually
—though now you have
a head the size of a giant mushroom,
in all its bandages—
but you’re a regular-sized guy,
not someone small.
But you’re a little gaunt.
A little still.
A little sad.
Or a lot of all those things.
But really, who’s more sad—me or you?
I’m betting it’s me.
Oh, right—this is not a sad contest,
or a who-is-better-at-anger contest.
It’s been a contest all our lives.
And now there will be only one life.
So who’s my opponent
when you go?
Tell me, brother.
Who’s my adversary
when you’re gone?
You open your eyes again.
Staring at me. Glaring at me. “ . . . nothing.”
“Oh come on—what?”
“You have to help me. You just have to.”
“Yeah, right. They’ll kill me. And you.”
“So what? I’m almost dead anyway.”
“Shut up. No you’re not.”
“You don’t know anything.”
“Whatever. The doctors will figure it out.”
“They can’t. It’s over.”
I stand up. “Seriously! Shut the hell up!”
You laugh. “Touchy, aren’t you?”
I storm off to the bathroom, your laughter
trailing me out of the room.
“Tallie, honey, we don’t know how to tell you this, so we’re just going to say it. Jon has brain cancer, so we’ll be gone for a while, OK? At the hospital. Grandma’s coming to stay with you. And please don’t worry. He’ll get better. We’ll get him fixed. Now can you let us rest? We haven’t slept for two days, and we need to be strong to help Jon. Give us a kiss. See you in a while.”
Mom nods while Dad talks.
They go into their room and shut their door.
Six years go by.
Now you’re seventeen.
You’re not fixed.
Your soccer ball sits in the corner
even though you’d don’t look at it.
Just want it around, you said.
The nurse comes every so often
to do your vitals, stand you up,
make you walk the hall.
I sit and watch.
Watch the baby, honey.
My mom bustles in and out.
finding facts, talking to doctors,
searching for food you’ll eat.
Dad is working—what else?
And I sit in the chair.
Watch the baby.
She doesn’t notice when I leave.
Why would she? Her eyes are full of you,
just like normal.
Plus you’re dying.
Maybe not today
or next month, but for sure this time.
Every minute it’s happening.
You’re passing. Expiring. Ceasing to be.
Watch the baby, Tallie.
So I do.
She wouldn’t notice if I left the state
with her wallet
naked on a horse.
And I can’t say I blame her.
You’re slipping away
falling, fading, sliding fast.
When we were little,
seeing you was my job
when she had to look elsewhere.
Now she can’t rip her eyes away.
I’m still here, still watching.
But she can’t see me.
Did you know it’s August?
I’m supposed to go to college in two weeks.
Who do I call to say I’m not coming?
“Um, yes, hello, I’m doing a deathwatch for my brother
whose brain is rotting out. I don’t think I’ll make
the first month of class, so yeah, tell the teachers
I’ll see them as soon as I can.”
They’ll laugh and hang up.
College isn’t the afterlife, you know.
It can wait.
At least that’s what our parents will say.
You can go in the spring, all right?
We need you here.
No you don’t.
Though now I’m getting curious.
You’re traveling somewhere
and I wonder,
when you take off,
if we’ll see you float away.
Or maybe it’s a rush, a rocket ride,
a great whoosh
into the unknown.
Maybe there’s a bang.
Or a big flash of light,
Your shell just stays behind,
while we all wonder
what to do next.
Watch the baby, honey.
Keep him safe.
I’d stare. Make sure you didn’t move.
But I was a baby too—probably three, I’d guess,
but still 364 days older than you,
so that made me the watcher.
Tallie, honey, watch the baby.
So I would,
and when you’d cry, I’d go get her
and she’d coo to you, hold you, cuddle you
until you stopped.
Then I cried
and she told me to hush, she had
things to do. Always things to do.
Busy busy busy.
Tallie, watch him. Watch Jon.
So I did.
“What?” I was asleep. I thought you were, too.
“I meant it. Let’s go.”
“We can’t go now. Too many people.”
You sit up in bed, looking more alert than you have
“Tonight, then. Like one.”
“I won’t be here, dork.”
“Sneak out. You know how. I heard you
all the time when you were dating Chris Roberts.”
“Seriously. One. We’ve got to go.”
“I’ll tell you then.
And bring my cleats.”
Mom comes back in the room.
“Nothing.” We say it together.
She looks from you to me.
“You’re planning something. I can tell.”
You lift up your IV tube.
“Not while I’m hooked to this.”
She gives us her best “I’m serious” look.
“The doctor wants you to rest. Brain surgery isn’t
for wimps, you know.”
You slump down into bed, like you’d
temporarily forgotten you were supposed to be
sick. Dying sick.
Then you turn to me.
“Hand me that ball.”
“Your head’s OK to move around?”
“It’s fine. Gimme. Or I’ll go nuts.”
Mom smiles, but sees the doctor
out of the corner of her eye, in the hall,
and she tears after him,
chasing another answer, another cure.
I listen to you turn the ball
over and over in your hands,
a quiet whisper
in a noisy room.
I watch you.
The first time you were in the hospital
six years ago
Dad and I were watching TV in your room.
Women’s soccer match.
And there were people, of course,
yakking on and on about the women
and their headers, their dribbling,
and the way the players flew down the field,
and some TV dude with a Spanish-sounding accent
rambled on, an old dude
with gray hair, and Dad said,
A small voice from the bed said,
with eyes still closed,
“Geez, Dad, it’s Pele.”
Pele is a soccer star from Brazil
who retired at least twenty years
before you were even born.
“How can you tell?”
My dad wanted to know.
A sigh. “His voice, of course.”
How does a kid,
in the twenty-first century,
identify an ancient
worldwide soccer star
by just his voice?
“No way.” I was—as always—a skeptic.
“YouTube,” you said.
“When I get older,
I’m going to train with him.
Or it can be my Make-A-Wish
if I don’t get better.”
I saw the tears creak
down my dad’s face, so
I replied for him.
“Whatever. You’ll get better.”
You smiled from the bed,
eyes still closed.
It’s not that hard to bust you out.
My parents go home first, and I say
I’m going to stay, watch some TV,
and I do, and we chat and laugh
and it’s almost like you’re not in that room,
that huge bed.
When I get home, they’re asleep,
car keys and a twenty laid out on the counter,
ready for tomorrow, or ready
for me to take them, I don’t know which.
I pack a bag,
cleats, shorts and a hoodie,
so you won’t look like an escapee,
and add a hat, though it won’t cover
the whole bandage.
Then I lie down to wait,
but not before
I look at all the pictures
Mom slapped on every available flat surface
in the kitchen, in the living room,
anywhere you weren’t.
First grade baseball uniform.
Third grade spelling bee.
Sixth grade talent show.
Last year’s club soccer championship.
You’re their golden boy. The one Mom was afraid for.
The one who got beat up
before you started sports.
The one who was the “accident.”
The one who lit up their life.
It’s not fair that you’re dying.
Their hearts will smash
into little, sharp pieces
and I won’t be able to put them
back together again.
I don’t mean to close my eyes
but I do, and I startle awake at three
and race out the door
and drive like a banshee.
When I rush through the door
I swipe a wheelchair,
for good measure.
The elevator takes a year
to get to your floor,
and when it finally opens,
the entire place is silent.
The nurses are tucked in their stations,
and you’re asleep.
“Jon. Hey, Jon.”
Your eyes fly open. “You’re late!”
“I know. Let’s go.”
First we pause all the monitors,
heart and blood and oxygen,
then we yank out the IV.
You don’t flinch.
You get dressed, me helping a little,
and I plant you in the wheelchair.
We fly around the corner to the elevator
right before I hear the nurse say,
“Time for vitals in 3411.”
That’s your room.
The elevator doors close
but not before I hear, “Where is he?”
Ha. You hear her, too, and
your smile is huge.
We wheel out through the ER,
the only door open at this hour,
and you close your eyes
to feel the night on your face.
“Don’t bring me back, ok?
Don’t bring me back.”
I don’t say anything, just
push you to the car.
We abandon the wheelchair
in another parking spot
and peel out.
Do you remember the Fall Fling grand march?
Of course you don’t.
It was state soccer finals
and your date was perfectly OK
with you not being there
because she wanted to go with Mark Maroney anyway,
but I was not OK
because Mom and Dad were with you.
Krista Judd’s mom took pictures of me
with my loser date Chad Hauser,
but I had a killer dress and kick-ass hair,
and it was my senior Fall Fling
and my parents weren’t there.
Of course not.
But you asked, and said how was the dance?
I just snarled at you.
And then there was my piano recital
when you were six,
and you fell out of the tree
and they had to leave.
And then there were nights
when I needed help with homework
and they sat and laughed with you
over some dumb sitcom.
And you got a car last year
(which I drive now,
since you’re sick)
and an iPhone,
and everything else I didn’t
and maybe I’m just being a bitch
but have you ever noticed
how they look at you?
(watch the baby, Tallie)
From the soccer field to the supper table,
you fill them up.
When they look at me
their eyes are empty.
You want McDonald’s. Gut-wrenching,
which is lucky for me,
because it’s open 24 hours a day.
I buy you everything you want.
We leave the windows open
and drive around while you eat.
Every bite looks like joy on your face.
Every bite makes you want to throw up
and after twenty minutes
I have to pull over so you can heave.
But you get back in the car
when it’s over, and say,
I can’t go back there.”
So I drive.
“Take me to the field.”
“Why? You’ll hurt yourself,
and I’ll get blamed.”
“Did you bring a soccer ball?”
“There’s one in the back seat.” I point.
“But you’re not touching it.”
“Whatever. Soccer field. Go.”
When we get there, it’s black as
the inside of your poor, hurt skull.
You get out, slow but determined, and you
motion to me. “Pull up there.
Point your lights at the goal.”
I glare. “Drive on the grass? Not on your life.
Someone will match up the tire tracks
and my ass will be dead.”
He points at the field. He points at me.
“Drive. Park there.”
So I do.
I leave the car twenty yards from the goal,
and the headlights show me a kid,
a sick-looking, skinny dude with a
playing footie in the glare,
focused on the ball.
You turn to me with a huge grin.
“Whatever, dude. You have no goalie.”
You grin again. “So get your butt in there.”
So I go, and I retrieve the ball
again and again, shot after shot,
and each one’s clean—
I can’t get a hand on them—
because you’re that good,
even when you’re slow
and sick and your head hurts,
which is obvious, because
you’re holding the side of it,
but you’re shooting, shooting,
shooting like you’ll never do it again.
“Throw the ball to me.”
You toss, I catch it,
throw it back,
and you head it into the net.
I don’t know if it’s pain or triumph,
but I throw the ball
over and over
and you head it
So loud I think you’ll wake the neighbors.
So long and loud I think you’ll wake God.
And then maybe God will look down
and tell me my brother can stay,
he’s had enough pain for now.
When you were four, you dressed up
in Mom’s prom dress
and wouldn’t let me have it back.
It was my favorite dress in the dress-up box.
You used to clobber me every single time
we went somewhere in the car,
and nobody saw you, only me
when I hit you back,
and I’d get yelled at
while you laughed and laughed.
When you were nine, you took all my Barbies
and shaved their heads
with Dad’s razor,
then planted them, feet up,
in Mom’s flower bed.
When you were eleven, you got sick.
When you were twelve, you were better.
Then you were a teenager, and I was too,
and we fought over what movie to watch
and who got to pick the ice cream at the store
but you always won.
Nobody knew how much time you had left.
I wanted to stomp and holler, slap your face
and say, “I can’t stand it anymore!
I’m going to kill you myself in five minutes!”
The cops come.
Someone reported screaming,
and weird lights on the field.
They take one look at you,
down on the ground,
bandaged head pillowed on one arm,
and they pick you up and put you in my back seat.
Drive to the hospital, they say,
and we’ll follow you
to make sure.
I check my phone before we go.
Sixteen texts and five missed calls.
All from Dad.
“That was incredible. Thank you.”
“Dude, you hurt your head.”
“Not any worse than it was.
It’s gonna kill me anyway, so
I might as well beat it to the punch.”
“Gonna miss you, Tal. Miss you,
Mom and Dad, soccer, this dumbass car.
Gonna miss it all.”
I can barely see. The tears are fierce,
but I don’t let you hear me sob.
“Miss you the most, Tallie.
Couldn’t ask for a better sis.”
I have to pull over. The cops pull over, too,
patiently waiting for me to stop weeping.
It’s five a.m. when we get back, and
the hospital acts like I stole a baby.
Mom and Dad and the nurses tuck you
safely away in you bed,
hook up the hooks,
monitor the monitors.
Then they drag me into the hall
and destroy me.
Each one takes their turn,
slicing and dicing and yelling
and I’m grounded
and I can’t drive the car again
until I’m twenty
and on and on and on.
I don’t say a word.
I go back into your room
and watch you sleep.
I thought I couldn’t stand you.
And I can’t stand to find out
what life will be like
Kirstin Cronn-Mills lives in southern Minnesota. She writes a lot, reads as much as she can, teaches at a two-year college, and goofs around with her son, Shae, and her husband, Dan. Her first novel, “The Sky Always Hears Me and The Hills Don’t Mind” (Flux), was a 2010 Minnesota Book Award finalist in Young People’s Literature. A short story epilogue to “Sky,” “The First Time I Got Stranded in the Big Empty,” appears in the e-anthology “The First Time” (Verday and Stapleton, 2011). Her second novel, “Beautiful Music for Ugly Children” (Flux), was released in October 2012.