Loose Ends

You stare at your brother across the hospital bed. “You weren’t there, so how would you know?”

Mom’s eyes are taped shut and the rhythmic heave and sigh of the ventilator fills the silence. Aiden inhales and looks at the floor. He looks like he is trying to summon patience and courage for this conversation.

This annoys you. Aiden has always acted like this when challenged or knows he is being called out on something. A lingering childhood petulance that has travelled too far into adulthood. For once, you are not trying to prove him wrong or show him up, but he refuses to or cannot recognize the difference.

Aiden finally replies, “Mom did not name a power of attorney. She didn’t write it down. Didn’t have time before—,” he sweeps his arm toward mom, “before all this. She wouldn’t have without talking to me first.”

His tone is a scold. You finally tear your eyes away from the monitor and look at him as he adjusts his ball cap, putting it on backwards. Errant strands of hair stick up from under the band of the cap. He needs a shave and a cut. One of his shoelaces is untied and his jacket is rumpled.

You are not fooled. The lack of personal care is not because of mom. You wonder if he has lost his job.

You ask, “How’s work going?”

He rubs his face with both hands like he has just woken up. “Fine.” He shrugs and looks away, trying to be nonchalant. Dark circles, like dirty smudges, hang under his eyes.

“Good,” you say. It is a game you both have played all your lives. You both know he is lying.

But you find no comfort in being right about Aiden and you turn your attention back to mom. Shrunken and frail, her body looks adrift on the hospital bed. The covers come up to her neck as if she is being swallowed whole, the monitors and machines looming like a wake of vultures.

A heaviness fills you and you feel as though you have travelled a great distance and have only just arrived.

“Aid, I’m not the bad guy here. This is tough for both of us. Mom called me several weeks ago. She knew she didn’t have much time. She was very emphatic. She did not want to be kept alive on machines like this.”

“How do I know you’re even telling the truth?” Aiden raises his voice, but you hear the desperation underneath and know he is frightened. “Just because everything in your life is hunky-fine.” He is shaking his head. “You know what I think? Mom is just one more problem for you to solve. You can’t be bothered, so you just want to pull the plug and be done with her. Admit it. You always must have everything sorted and tied up in a neat little bow.” His tone is mocking now.

A nurse breezes in through the open door. “Good morning! How is everyone today?”

She walks to the far side of the bed and pushes a button on one of the monitors. “Doctors are making their rounds. They’ll be here soon,” she says conspiratorially.

The nurse has a pleasant face, but the creases at the corners of her eyes are telling. You suspect she has been listening outside in the hallway.

You get up and walk to the bedside and as you do, you get a whiff of Aiden’s breath. He has been drinking. You are suddenly aware of the small bulge in the side pocket of his jacket. Your eye catches the edge of a ribbed silver cap. A flask.

The nurse changes the dressing on mom’s IV, initialing the date and time in pen. She says, “There, that should do it. I’ll be back after rounds.” You get the impression she would like to say more, but she averts her gaze.

If the ventilator and monitoring are discontinued, will the IV fluids be removed, too? You want to ask about pain killers and hydration. Is your mom even in pain?

There are so many questions. So many decisions.

But when you look up to ask, the nurse is already gone. When you look at Aiden slumped in the chair, his eyes are closed.

You are suddenly so angry, your body trembles. You clench your fists as resentment pours through your veins like black ink. Like an IV wide open, the ink travels fast, coursing through every organ in your body until your limbs tingle with rage.

Oddly, it is your mom you are angry with. Not Aiden. Your mom, not Aiden, put you in the position of always being the bad guy.

Aiden’s right. Mom put nothing in writing. She did not designate a power of attorney. She did not even call Aiden. She expected you to carry out her wishes, handle the details, manage the estate. And like a good girl, you have like you have always done.

Most of all, she left you to soothe Aiden. To smooth things over with him. Take care of him, lend him money, and enable him as she has always done. You, the caretaker, the decision-maker. The responsible one.

You swallow back the acid rising in your throat and gaze down at your mom. Her face is slack, serene almost, and you think this is the most content you have ever seen her. You try to summon the pity you felt only moments ago, grasping for any remaining compassion, but it is out of reach, like fragments of a dream dissolving.

You hear footsteps and voices approach from down the hall. A herd of white coats enter the room and surround the bed. They ignore you at first. Someone logs onto the computer, while the others consult their phones, jostling one another and chattering amongst themselves. When they finally lift their heads, faux smiles plastered on their faces, one of them asks, “So, which one of you is in charge?”

You glance at Aiden. Bleary-eyed, lids fluttering, he sits up and runs his hand over the flask in his pocket. You can tell he is itching for a drink.

You take one last glance at your mom, then nod toward Aiden. “He is,” you say, a thrill shuddering right through you.

You ignore the stunned look of fear and confusion on Aiden’s face, and walk out. Your body feels loose, almost as if you are floating down the hallway. Your mom’s nurse is standing at a counter, talking with someone. You give her a little wave and walk on.

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About the Author

Carol Willis (she/her) received an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She also served as a reader for VCFA’s literary journal, Hunger Mountain. Many of her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in several anthologies and multiple online zines including Inlandia: A Literary Journey, Living Crue Magazine, and Valparaiso Fiction Review, and many others.