This story is by Clarissa Gosling and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It was the hours before seeing Louisa again that were the worst. She was my sister, my little sister, who I was meant to look after, and yet I couldn’t spend time with her anymore. I hadn’t seen her in six months. I should get a reward: Damian, the worst big brother ever.
The invitation this morning had been unexpected. Well, more like a demand by text message than an invitation to visit:
We need to talk. Come by my house after work.
She didn’t respond when I asked why. So I agreed. As she knew I must.
I sat at my desk, head down, pretending to work. The numbers on my computer screen circled around me as the staccato rhythm of typing from my cubicle neighbours echoed around the room. Yet, instead of the mundane end of month accounts, all that went round my head was thoughts of what ifs. What if I had been more careful? What if I had refused to go as fast as she’d insisted on? What if it had never happened?
Straight after work I drove round to visit her. I didn’t even bother to change out of my suit. She lived in a cosy bungalow in a complex for disabled people. Everyone lived in their own bungalow, scattered around a central garden and communal facilities. It was a peaceful place, but hidden out of the real world.
I squared my shoulders and rang the doorbell. The door opened and there she was. I needed to adjust my gaze down to meet hers, again. Her aluminium wheelchair sported psychedelic patterns on the inside the large back wheels. Her t-shirt was bright orange and pink in tie-dye swirls, and she wore a chunky brown necklace that hung over it. The voluminous navy blue skirt she wore hid her shrivelled legs, but I still knew they were there. Where she had tucked her hair behind her ears, streaks of blue peeked through her dirty blond bob. She had the biggest grin I’d seen on her face for a long time. No clues yet as to the emergency that instigated my invitation. She just waved me through past her.
As children we were inseparable even though she was two years younger than me. She had always been the daredevil, the tomboy, wanting to go faster, harder, further. But what you can get away with on a bike isn’t possible in a car. I had been the driver; I should have known better, even at eighteen. One moment of irresponsibility was all it took. Unbeknownst to us the tree round the corner had blown down, and we careered into it. Somehow I walked out without a scratch, but it was touch and go with Louisa for weeks. In hospital for nearly a year. Even now she greets the hospital receptionist like an old friend.
They said she was lucky to be alive, but it might have been easier if she had died. Then I might have got over it by now. While here we are ten years later and I’m constantly reminded of my guilt. Or, constantly doing my best not to be reminded of it. I was aware I had pushed everyone away since, but I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want to ruin another life.
Inside I walked through to the living room and stopped on the threshold as I saw someone else already there. He also sat in a wheelchair, but an electric one. His dark eyes flicked away from me, and he ran his right hand through his spiky black hair. He wore a baggy, black t-shirt and dark blue jeans, at odds with my sister’s more flamboyant colour choices. His left hand was curled up against his belly, and when he looked towards me I saw that his eyes didn’t quite point in the same direction.
“Hello, Damian. I’ve heard so much about you. Glad to finally meet you,” he said.
“Um, hi.” I shifted my weight from foot to foot. Who was this guy who had heard so much about me?
Louisa wheeled in behind me. “Ah, Damian, This is Habib. He lives in the cabin across from me.” She waved her hand airily towards the wall to her right.
“Sit down, sit down.” She gestured towards a folding chair to one side of the room.
Most of the floor was clear so she could manoeuvre round. Two folding chairs rested in one corner, ready for any guests who needed one. Dusty pink paisley wallpaper covered the walls, with a TV in one corner.
I took the chair she had pointed to and sat opposite them, looking from one to the other. What was this urgent matter we needed to talk about? Just sitting with her reminded me of all the things she would no longer have. She used to dream of backpacking round the world and becoming a firefighter, and however much she painted and sang it didn’t compare. None of those dreams would happen now. And it was all my fault.
She wheeled next to Habib and took his hand. They looked at each other, and there was something in their gaze, which I’d never felt, and I envied.
With a deep breath Louisa turned towards me. “We’re getting married.”
My mouth dropped open, and I stared at them both.
“I understand this must come as a shock to you, seeing as I never see you anymore and this is the first time you’ve met Habib.”
“But we’ve been seeing each other for almost a year now, and we’ve decided that we want to be together.”
I shook my head slightly, still trying to form any coherent thoughts.
Habib said, “Your sister is a special woman. From the first time we met, when she painted my portrait, I felt a real connection with her. I insisted we met up again, and the rest is history. Now I want to spend the rest of my life with her.” Habib shrugged. “I realise I’m not a great prospect, but I promise I will do my best for her, for however long or short we are here together.”
“Habib!” She thwacked his shoulder lovingly.
He turned to her, with a twinkle in his eye. “What?”
She shook her head and let out a sigh, then turned back to me. “What we brought you here today for, was to ask if you would walk me down the aisle. Seeing as Dad’s not around anymore.”
“I…I…” I what? My eyes were filling up. “I’d love to, but…”
“No, no buts.” She interrupted. “No might have beens. I live in this beautiful house, with a community of friends around, the grounds to explore whenever I want to, my painting when I don’t, and now I have Habib. How could I be happier? Without the accident, none of these would have happened.” She glanced at Habib. “I would never have met my soulmate.” She wheeled closer and laid her hand on my knee. “Truly, I am grateful for what happened. I know my life is nothing like I planned when I finished school, but I can’t think of anyone from school who achieved their childhood dream. Everybody amends what we strive for as our circumstances change. I can’t imagine a better life for me than this.”
Tears ran down my cheeks. “Truly?”
She nodded, her eyes welling up too. “Truly.” She paused and cocked her head to one side. “Well, there is one thing…”
I looked up at her. “What?”
“Stop beating yourself up about it. Move on with your own life and be happy for me.”
I sniffed. “I’ll try. I am happy for you. For you both. But I can’t stop thinking about what might have been.”
“I understand, I do it too. For you. What you’ve lost.”
I jerked upright, and she looked knowingly at me. What I’d lost? How did that even compare?
“You need to accept our current situation; there’s nothing we can do to change it.”
I knew that, but never realised how the accident had changed me too. Closed me off from others. I stared at her and wiped my tears away.
She wheeled herself back a little. “Now, shall we discuss our wedding plans?”
I sighed. “OK. But first I need a cup of tea.”
She smiled so hard, it nearly split her face in half. “Good idea. Kettle’s in the kitchen.” She pointed to the kitchen door behind me.
“Make three, won’t you?” She winked.
I had to laugh.
Maybe bossy little sisters never change!