There were some days I waited for more than others. Saturdays were usually worth waiting, because that meant no school and that I could spend the days either in peace or with people I really cared about. Like mum or Patrick or Rem, or if it was an especially good day, with Bree and Jace as well. The next Saturday was going to be one of those really awesome days. Mum and Patrick had actually let me invite them both over for a slumber party. Apparently it was one of those social things that I should be doing more often, and I didn’t really disagree.
Mum was fussing, like she usually was. She was cleaning stuff and making sure we all had what we needed for the day. Then she darted upstairs to quickly make sure she had everything she needed for work as well. While she was gone, Patrick took control downstairs and pulled me aside.
“Remember that Rem and I will go to the doctor’s appointment after school, so you make sure your mum doesn’t work too obsessively with the cleaning,” he said, a very paternal smirk on his face. He cast a loving look at the ceiling as if he knew exactly where mum was standing, “You know how she gets whenever we have guests.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said, “You don’t have to worry.”
“Good,” said Patrick with another warm smile, “Then I can just worry about the doctor’s appointment going well.”
“Wasn’t that going to be just a routine check?” I asked.
“Sure, but a dad’s always got to worry just a bit. Especially after last time…”
Ah, yes, the last time Rem had been at a routine check like this, the doctor had – after being charmed by Rem’s innocently enthusiastic questions about the medical equipment – said something about possible iron deficiency anaemia and told us to bring Rem back after a few months. Patrick had explained then that it just meant that Rem might have too little iron in his body and that might make him tired, that it should be nothing to worry about with the proper medication.
Still, he had looked worried, and I suppose it was part of a parent’s job description. And Patrick, well, he was usually bordering on over-protective especially when it came to Rem. Rem didn’t seem to mind it most of the time, but I was glad I could go under Patrick’s concern-powered radar much more than him. I knew Patrick cared about me, he just wasn’t afraid that I’d break if something went wrong.
Even though Patrick was worried, I had just thought the whole thing about anaemia sounded ridiculous. I’d never, ever seen Rem look even remotely anaemic. He was always on the move, bouncing, hopping, laughing and running. Especially once he got outside, where he loved to play. I just assumed the doctor would prove herself wrong this time and life would go on like normal. And meanwhile, I would have a hopefully nice day at school and a definitely nice evening with friends.
The school day passed almost agonisingly slowly, because it was mostly a waiting game before the real fun started. I could barely focus, but I tried my best to keep up. In geometry, the triangles and squares swam before my eyes, and even in literature I couldn’t get excited about some classic changeling tale that was about a baby kidnapped by trolls or something. But then it was finally over, and Bree, Jace, and I climbed into the same school bus for once and got off at our porch.
Mum had clearly hurried home from work to get everything spotless before we arrived. She was waiting almost right behind the front door, smiling brightly and making me feel just a bit embarrassed.
“Hi, kids! It’s so nice to see you!” she almost chirped. I should probably really invite more friends over just to make mum more at ease about my social life, “I baked cookies. You can take them upstairs, but be careful with the crumbs.”
“Yeah, sure, mum,” I said, secretly casting a look at my friends that clearly said “parents, am I right?”, “We’ll be up if anyone needs us.”
“Of course!” mum said and was then interrupted by her cell phone ringing. I motioned Bree and Jace to go upstairs while I got the cookies and listened to mum talk to Patrick, who was on the other end of the phone.
“What?” mum was saying, “So the doctor was really right? She did give you pills for it, didn’t she?”
If I strained my hearing, I could tell that Patrick was a bit annoyed about the whole thing. Mostly because the doctor had apparently said something about the importance of protein in that meaningful way people say things when they want to carefully suggest they are more right about someone else’s lifestyle. Patrick usually got a bit touchy when somebody even implied something negative about his vegetarianism that by extension made our entire family mostly vegetarian, even though he didn’t really force us. I didn’t mind it, especially since mum made sure we sometimes got some chicken or burgers if we really felt like it.
“Honey, I’m sure the doctor didn’t mean it like that,” mum said, “And it’s just good to know that Rem’s otherwise a healthy little boy. I mean, he’s never sick anyway so it wasn’t a surprise or anything, but still…”
I toned out mum’s talking and got upstairs. Bree and Jace were waiting for me there already. Downstairs, my mum continued talking and then laughing when Rem apparently did something that was so like him again. Later that evening I found out he had gone to some guy in the library, where dad had driven to pick up some books right after the doctor, and started talking in that weird, chirpy tone of his:
“Hello, mister hunter. I found you.”
“Really? Were you looking for me?”
“No, but I’m glad I found you anyway. You’re like the hunter who saved the Little Red Riding Hood from the wolf.”
It just was one of the weird things he said and that I really wished he didn’t blurt out in public. But right now I didn’t need to know about any of that. Right now I could just enjoy my happy fun times with Bree and Jace. They had waited for me upstairs in my room, and Bree had immediately sat in front of the old dollhouse I’d never had the heart to throw away even though I played with it less and less as I grew. The few times Bree had visited our place, she’d always gushed over it like a six-year-old.
“Wow, this never stops being cool!” she said, “I wish I had a dollhouse like this!”
“It is pretty cool,” I said proudly, “It’s the only old toy Rem will never get from me.”
Jace was sighing theatrically behind me.
“Come on! I hope we didn’t come here just to watch a dollhouse!”
I poked him in the arm.
“What? Are you scared your manliness is endangered because of a dollhouse?”
“No!” Jace said defensively, “I just think it’s boring!”
“Hey! My cool house isn’t boring!”
Our half-hearted argument quickly became just a playful squabble and we barely even remembered what it was about. Jace’s laughter was loud, but so heartfelt that it became contagious.
After we changed to our pyjamas, Bree finally left the dollhouse alone and joined the fun, and we could all be silly together. Soon we attacked the cookies mum had made, and I put on an old stereo mum had dug up from storage because I’d told her that Jace loved to listen to music.
The only less fun part of the evening was when I came downstairs to get us some sodas and noticed that Patrick and Rem had returned. Not only that, but Rem was sleeping soundly on the floor. It was kind of odd. Usually Rem really needed the comfort of his own bed and a good bedtime story to get any sleep.
Patrick looked up when I stopped on my way to the kitchen.
“Good that you’re here, Lynn,” he whispered, “I was just about to come up. Could you and your friends keep it down a little bit? Rem is really tired.”
“Really? Is he sick?” I asked. Rem was never really tired.
“No,” Patrick said, “I suppose the iron deficiency is finally catching up to him. The doctor gave him some iron supplements, though, so it should be fine.”
“You kids remember not to stay up too late?” mum added in a hushed tone, “Also, I’ll come up soon enough to see you haven’t made too much of a mess.”
“Yeah, don’t worry, mum.”
I grabbed the sodas from the fridge quickly before mum could remind me of how sodas and my thick carpet wouldn’t mix and dashed back upstairs, where our slumber party continued in full swing, even when we did turn down the music and tried to talk a bit quieter.
It was just as I’d pictured it being. A fun evening that left us all laughing way too much at many not even that great jokes and then quietly going to sleep; Bree and Jace crawling into their sleeping bags and I into my bed.
A couple of days after the slumber party it became apparent that Rem’s tiredness wasn’t just a one-night thing. It just didn’t seem to pass at all. I went on to my normal routines and back to school after the weekend, but by that time Rem had to stay home because he’d caught something that involved fevers and nausea. I really hoped I wouldn’t catch it, and at the same time I felt a bit bad for Rem. I mean, he never got sick normally, so this must have been especially icky for him.
In the end it got so bad that he was just lying in his bed, limp and almost lifeless. I’d never seen him like that, and it was so far away from the normal Rem that it scared me. What was wrong with him? Mum and Patrick were getting really worried too. They had called doctors and dragged Rem to see them. The doctors had been all white coats and professionalism and had fancy looking papers on the wall, but the best they could do was to tell us it was probably just a virus and to recommend painkillers to keep the fever down and to come back again later if things didn’t change. I didn’t get it all. Doctors were supposed to heal people, right? Then why did they just dismiss this as normal? Because it wasn’t. I don’t know how I knew it, but it just didn’t feel normal.
Patrick and mum were taking turns staying home from work, and they would usually also take turns at Rem’s bedside. Patrick usually hogged the most turns, and he would read Rem bedtime stories whenever Rem was awake. That rarely happened, though, because Rem was always so exhausted. When he’d wake up they’d give him his painkillers and iron and plenty to drink. In the worst times he’d throw up. Then he would usually fall asleep again and the worrying would continue.
It went on for almost two weeks until two things happened: I freaked out, and Patrick had an idea.
I strayed to Rem’s room just to see if he was doing any better. He was still asleep, lying on the covers because he was sweating so much, and occasionally shivering. His favourite stuffed toy was on the bed with him. It had been mine when I’d been little, but I’d let Rem have it once I’d started to feel it just took up space on my bed. Its name had been Candy, but I’d let Rem change it. He and Patrick had picked the new name from a book of artists. Kandinsky. Except Rem always reminded us that it had to be spelled with a C out of respect for the teddy’s original name.
Patrick was by Rem’s side, looking more tired than I’d ever seen him. I was afraid that if Rem didn’t get better soon, at least Patrick would get sick too just out of worry.
He was speaking quietly, and I realised he was talking to Rem:
“I know you’ll get better, son,” he whispered, “You’re strong and you’ll pull through.”
He smiled sadly.
“You probably don’t remember, but back when you were just born, we had to worry about you then too. But you got better from that, so of course now…”
His voice wavered. He wiped his eyes – and it was weird because I’d never seen Patrick cry – and looked up. Then he saw me standing in the doorway.
“Oh, Marilynn?” he said and looked startled, as if I’d just caught him doing something embarrassing, “Hey. Would you watch over Rem for just a second? I need to go to the bathroom.”
I looked at Patrick and thought that he should probably eat something while he was at it too.
“Yeah, sure I can,” I said, “You can leave it to me.”
Patrick nodded gratefully, gave Rem another sad look and then left. I sat down and waited.
After a while I started telling a story. It was one of my habits when I was around Rem. I’d read him fairy tales when he’d been little, and now I usually made up my own.
“There was a little… fox, who was sitting drenched in the rain, waiting for his mother. After a while, when his nice red coat had been soaked through, he decided to stop waiting and look for her by himself. So he asked his friend, a small yellow bird, to help him. Together, they set off, and…”
I trailed off. My mind felt blank, even though I usually had tons of ideas that would start flowing when I got to storytelling mode. But now Rem wasn’t smiling and looking excited about every twist and turn I could throw at him. Now he was lying still, ragdoll-like with his too fast breathing the only movement I could see. His skin looked like paper and I was afraid he would just break into pieces if he got any worse.
Then, slowly and sluggishly, he started waking up again. It was nothing new, and I knew to be prepared with the water bottle that was under the table to keep it from getting too warm in the spring sun. Rem moved slowly, crawled up into a sitting position and blinked owlishly, looking like he had no idea where he was.
“Hello? Rem?” I said, “Are you really awake?”
Rem opened his mouth and coughed dryly.
“Wh-where am I?” he said in a raspy voice.
“You’re home, genius,” I said, “Now wake up properly, because your dad will be back soon and he really wants you to be awake.”
Rem closed his sleepy eyes.
“Yes, home…” then he opened his eyes again, and I jumped up from my seat.
His pupils were gone, disappeared under shine that I’d never seen before. He was breathing deeper now, and it should have been good, but it seemed that with every breath he took, the toys on his bed and desk started rising up, and the air around us grew strangely light, like what mountain climbers probably felt near the top.
I felt dizzy, but that was the least of my problems right now because my brother was having a… some kind of attack. If it could be even called that.
“Rem! Whatever you’re doing, stop it!” I said, and watched with horror when daisies started growing out of Rem’s bed, pushing through the covers like the cloth was the best possible fertiliser. I couldn’t get enough air, and I felt like I was going to pass out, to float in emptiness and out of reality.
“What are you yelling at, Lynn?” Rem asked and actually smiled, “I’m just fine.”
The not-real forest from years ago sprung to my mind again. Were we headed there now? I remembered the fear and loneliness I’d felt there. And this time everything actually looked real enough that I couldn’t just stop believing in it.
“Rem! Stop it!” I yelled, and Rem’s eyes snapped shut again. The air was back to normal, and its weight rushed back so quickly that it sent me reeling.
When I could see straight again, the daisies were gone. The toys had tumbled back down and in the midst of them sat Rem, tears trying to fall from his thankfully back to relatively normal eyes again.
“Lynn?” Rem asked fearfully, “What… what did I just do?”
I took a deep breath, enjoying the feel of air.
“I don’t know, Rem,” I managed to say.
Rem staggered to his feet and looked at his hands in shock.
“But I… I saw… I couldn’t…” he stammered, and looked so lost I stopped being afraid because my big sister instincts kicked in again.
“Hey, it’s alright…” I started, but Rem pushed past me and rushed out of the room so quickly that Candinsky tumbled onto the floor from the bed. I pretended that I didn’t hear the retching sounds from the upstairs bathroom.
We didn’t speak about it to mum or Patrick. They were worried enough as it was. Rem did tell Patrick something about a forest, but Patrick dismissed it as a delirious dream.
The idea that I mentioned earlier didn’t come to Patrick in a very dramatic way, and really, I think we’d had enough drama for the entire week anyway. Patrick was making food for us in the kitchen, when his eyes fell on the iron supplement pills Rem had been taking ever since the first day of his sickness. A figurative light bulb had gone off, and the iron pills had gone into the cupboard, out of sight for a while. Patrick had explained to mum that even if the pills weren’t the cause, Rem had been fine without them so leaving them out most likely wouldn’t at least make things worse. Not that they could even get much worse to begin with.
At first we were all dubious. I mean, as far as I knew at least, iron didn’t cause things like this to people, unless Rem had some really weird allergy, but we all decided to go with it because we were all getting desperate, and the doctors didn’t know what was going on either.
The sickness stopped a few days after Rem stopped taking the pills, and Rem was back on his feet, smiles and dizzyingly fast running speed like usual.
Patrick had been mad at the doctor. The doctor still insisted that Rem needed more iron, but had decided to leave it once Patrick and mum kept telling her that he had no symptoms of anaemia whatsoever. The doctor had suggested that it had been just these particular pills that had triggered the illness, but even she had agreed that it would be stupid to try again without a very good reason.
In time, this incident too was slowly pushed to the back of our minds and Rem stayed healthy as ever. The weirdness in our lives was over again for a while. In fact, nothing out of the ordinary showed up for months. Rem got back to his painting and being loved by everyone, and I went back to my books and being left alone by everyone.
But even then, I couldn’t get the incident with the daisies and eyes from my mind. The forest I could have explained as imagination, because I’d been so little then, and more prone to actually wishing the fantasies I cooked up would become true. But now I was older, and while mum and Patrick reminded me that twelve wasn’t so old that I could start going out without curfew, it was old enough to start knowing that daisies growing out of bedsheets wasn’t normal.
I never really had any great epiphanies about it. I did a few searches on the internet, but found nothing interesting. And really, I kept telling myself that I was being stupid, that I should just be happy that my brother was well again. That it was as it should have been…
“Oh, there you went. You’re pretty. Like a tree.”
“…Thanks, but no thanks.”
“…No, I have to go back to daddy. Now. Bye, Tree Lady!”
“Hey, son! Come on in! It’s getting dark!”
“Whoa, what’s the hurry, little guy?”
“Nothing. I just wanted to be back here with you, daddy.”