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Today's Story by Sue Ann Culp

Neither of you will ever move on, until you learn to forgive.

Iron and Ice

My past clawed its way out of the phone and curled around my throat like a garrote.

“Katrina McAndrews?” the voice asked again over the muffled drone of steady beeps and soft buzzing.

I was confused.  I’d buried that name years ago. “Yes?”

“This is Robin Price.  I’m a critical care nurse at Spectrum Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I’m so glad I finally found you.”

My windpipe collapsed, and I gulped for air.  “Why?”

“I’m afraid I have bad news.  It’s your brother, James.”

The phone was lead in my hand.   I hadn’t seen nor heard from Jamie in twenty years.  Not since the night I tried to kill him.

Our lives condense neatly into a chronology of memorable events. The first day of school.  The first dance recital.  The first kiss.  Mine was no different.

At age six, my father died in a bar fight.  I didn’t cry.  In fact, I was relieved. No more huddling under the covers at night, hugging my dachshund, Dixie, for comfort as my mother sobbed, trying desperately to dodge Dad’s relentless blows.

At age seven, I shoplifted for the first time. Mom often retreated into an alcohol-induced haze of denial.  Shopping for nutritious groceries wasn’t high on her priority list.  I could get a free breakfast and lunch at school, but Dixie needed food, too.  Granola bars could slip easily into a pocket.  I had pockets.  And I would have risked anything for my dog.

At age eight, my brother, Jamie, came to my room at night for the first time.  He was twelve.  For the next two years, I never felt clean, no matter how many times I stood in the shower crying, while icy water flogged my back.

His warning was clear and chilling.  “Tell anyone and your dog dies.”

At age ten, I returned home from school and found Dixie curled up peacefully in her basket that rested beside my bed.  She was dead.  I wasn’t surprised.  At fourteen, her health had been slipping steadily over the past year.  We didn’t have the money to take her to a vet, so I knew it was just a matter of time.

I tucked Dixie’s pink, cotton blanket tightly around her frail, still body, before going to the kitchen to select a knife. My fear for Dixie’s welfare melted into iron resolve with every step.  That night, when Jamie crept into my room and pulled back my covers, I slashed at him, wielding two year’s worth of pent up frustration and rage. The blade connected four times before Jamie’s screams roused my mother from her stupor, and she burst into the room.

I didn’t speak again until I was twelve.  At the juvenile detention center, where they shut me away, I simply had nothing to say, in spite of the hours of so-called therapy with well-meaning psychiatrists and counselors.

One gray, November morning, I sat opposite my mother, a pane of glass separating us.

“I’ve lost your brother,” she said, slurring her words slightly.  She gazed at me with glassy eyes from a face mottled in purple and red. “He turned sixteen yesterday. Packed his stuff.  Left.”

“Good,” I said.  Then I got up and returned to my room.  I never saw her again.

In spite of my surroundings, I studied hard.  At eighteen, my incarceration ended.  My records sealed, a case worker helped me secure a place in a group home and a job at the library.  My grades earned me a scholarship, and I entered college.  At twenty-five, I graduated with a degree in accounting, changed my name to Trina Andrews, moved to Atlanta to work at a tax preparation firm, and started a new life.

“Miss McAndrews, are you there?”

The voice on the phone disrupted the replay of my ghastly history and I stuffed the memories of my life’s journey back into the mental file cabinet, re-locking it securely. I must have murmured a response because she continued.

“Your brother is very ill.  He needs a bone marrow transplant and, as far as we can tell, you are his only living relative.”

Tightly repressed emotions spiraled to the surface, churning my yogurt and fruit breakfast into bitter sludge that edged up my throat.  I swallowed hard, trying to calm the spasms.

“Can you come and be tested?”

I don’t remember saying yes, or calling my boss, or even putting gas into my Civic.  I do remember noticing how beautiful the orange and gold leaves glistened in the autumn sun as I drove through the mountains of West Virginia, and how white my hands looked gripping the navy steering wheel. During the fourteen hour trip, I stopped for gas twice, thought about eating but opted only for diet soda, hoping it would settle my stomach and nerves. When I checked into the motel on Route 131 south of Grand Rapids, I sank onto the bed, and wondered how I got to this place. Why I had even made the effort.

A few miles away, my brother lay in a sterile room, fighting to hold off the cancer’s decay.  I slept fitfully, his twelve year old face drifting in and out of my dreams.  He called to me, his voice pleading.  Dixie danced into my arms.  I hugged her tightly then turned away, laughing as his cries degenerated into desperate, pain-ridden moans.

In the morning, I parked in the hospital’s lot, and sipped on lukewarm coffee from a convenience store. The Styrofoam cup magnified the liquid’s bitterness.  Vile yet comfortably familiar.

My sneakers smacked the hospital’s polished floor as I wound my way through the maze of corridors leading to the oncology unit.  My ankles felt mushy and I clenched my fists.  I hoped Jamie was awake and lucid.  Somewhat in control now, I imagined his face dissolving into despair when I gleefully shared that I had no intention of coming to his rescue.  I was only here to watch what I’d been unable to finish twenty years ago. I shivered and wished I hadn’t left my jacket in the car.  No matter.  Revenge is a cold business, they say.

I waited outside Jamie’s room, watching as a nurse changed the bag of fluid connected to his IV.  At age thirty four, he wasn’t much bigger than the last time I’d seen him at fourteen.  He had obviously grown in frame but the cancer had eaten away at muscles and sinew, leaving him with a childlike gauntness that unnerved me.

The nurse motioned me forward. “You must be Katrina, James’ sister.”

“It’s Trina.”

She smiled, her brown eyes glowing like melted chocolate in her smooth, round face. “Your brother calls you Katie.”

I shook my head.  “That person died years ago.”

Her eyes bore into mine as if she could see directly into my soul, and she sighed.   She extended her hand. “I’m Nurse Price.  We spoke on the phone.”

I stepped backward and tucked my hands into the pockets of my jeans.  I avoided all touch.

The nurse seemed unperturbed by my withdrawal and continued. “Thank you for getting here so quickly.  He’ll be so happy. You’re all he’s talked about.”

Not for long, I thought.  I just smiled.

She gently reached for Jamie’s wrist and held it delicately as she measured his pulse rate. Jamie stirred and groaned.  The low, visceral sound vibrating from deep in his throat seemed strangely familiar.

“Would you like to roll onto your back?” Nurse Price asked.  Jamie nodded.   His angular face and bald head resembled Dad but his dove gray eyes were pure Mom, cloudy and mournful. It hurt to see her reflected there and I turned away.

I drifted to the opposite side of the bed closer to the window.  As the nurse repositioned Jamie, the back of his gown flopped open, revealing a web of pink scars criss-crossing his back.  I gasped.

The nurse shook her head and sighed. “He must have endured some horrific beatings as a child.”  She paused.  “But I’m sure you knew that.”

Actually, I didn’t.  But childhood memories often knocked on doors that I refused to open.

Jamie lifted his head slightly only to have it plop back onto the pillow with a dull thud.  She tucked the blanket over his chest and said, “You have a visitor.” She exited silently, closing the door slightly behind her.

Jamie’s eyes scanned the room, found me, and rested on my face. Recognition dawned. Slowly, the edges of his mouth curled upward as his right hand moved to rub his left shoulder. A one inch scar peeked from under the neckline of his hospital gown and I remembered.  The blade.  His flesh.  My exhilaration.

“You came,” he croaked.  “I didn’t think you’d come.”  He reached out to me. The purple veins in the back of his hand bulged unnaturally against his parchment-like skin. I remained motionless.  Jamie sighed.  “Don’t blame you.  I wouldn’t want to touch me either.” He nodded toward the bedside table.  “Water, please.”  I hesitated.  “Please.”

I retrieved the cup, guided the straw to his lips, and waited while he labored to draw the liquid into his mouth.  He coughed, sending a trail of spittle down his chin.  It dripped onto his gown, leaving grotesque shadows in the fabric.

“I’m sorry, Katie.  That sounds so lame, but it’s all I’ve got.  You don’t know how many times I wished that you would have killed me that night. I deserved it.  Dying would have been a lot easier.”  Jamie took a deep breath and closed his eyes as if those few words had eaten up his allotment of strength for the day. The steady beeping of the heart monitor matched the thudding inside my chest, as if our lives were somehow in sync. The thought alarmed me and I fought the urge to flee. “Could you just sit with me awhile?  It’s just so good to have you here.  And I need to talk.  I’m just so tired.”

Through the raspy edge of his voice, I heard remnants of the brother I had once loved.  The one who used to sneak me out the backdoor when Dad got particularly drunk, and save his apple from his school lunch so I’d have something to eat for dinner. The boy who had been my only source of comfort and safety.  Before he changed.

Jamie’s breathing grew even as he fell into shallow, restless slumber.  I settled into a chair in the corner and watched his chest slowly rise and fall.  I alternated between hope that each breath would be his last, and panic that it actually would. My emotions battled like two starving mongrels over a discarded sandwich, leaving me raw and exhausted.

I sensed a presence, and looked up to see Nurse Price standing in the doorway.  She cocked her head, indicating that I should join her.  I followed her down the hall to a private room furnished with soft camel upholstered chairs and mellow oak tables littered with tattered magazines.  She gestured that I should sit.  I didn’t.

“The donor test is quite simple,” she said, holding up a large cotton swab.  “A simple cheek swipe.”

“Then what?” I asked.

“If you’re a match, you’ll undergo a few days of injections to prepare your blood for regeneration. Like an athlete beefing up on lots of protein before a big game.”  Her smile waned when I didn’t respond to her attempt to lighten the mood.  She cleared her throat, sounding nervous, and continued.  “Then we’ll administer a general anesthesia and use a long needle to withdraw some liquid marrow from the back of your pelvic bone. You’ll probably be sore for a bit, but most people can resume regular activities in four to seven days.”

Her face was serene, eyes soft.  But the tapping of her foot punctuated her rising impatience.  I let the silence around us grow to deafening heights.

“Look, Katie…”

“Trina,” I corrected.

“I’m sorry.  Trina.  James told me all about what happened.  What he did to you was horrible.”

I turned away.  “He can never know how that felt.”

“Your father abused him for years when he was small.  And then he pimped himself out on the street in order to survive after he left home.  I think he understands your pain.  He was so young – he just didn’t know what to do with it.”

From somewhere deep in my memory, a door cracked open.   Muffled cries coming from Jamie’s room in the dark of night were punctuated by my father’s low, guttural laughter. I felt my teeth grind together.  Pain shot through my jaw.

Nurse Price slid into my line of vision.  “Neither of you will ever move on, until you learn to forgive.  Your parents.  One another. Yourselves.” She held up the cotton swab as if it were somehow a symbol of reconciliation.

I despised that word, forgiveness.  People bandied it about as if it were some magic potion designed to heal and renew.  Endless hours of therapy all boiled down to this one concept. But I couldn’t grasp it.  The word was so easy to say but utterly impossible to feel.

I figured the only way I’d get this woman out of my face was to open my mouth like a repentant child and submit to the test.  Besides, revenge would be sweeter if Jamie knew I was a match and then refused to be his donor. A wall of guilt crashed over me like a tsunami but receded just as quickly.

A moment later, Nurse Price paused at the door holding the swab imprisoned in its sterile tube.  “Do you know what forgiveness feels like?” she asked, almost as if she had heard my thoughts.  I didn’t answer but met her eyes, thinking I’d add another clever definition to the myriad of platitudes I’d collected through the years.  “Forgiveness is when the person who has hurt you the most wins the lottery, and you find yourself grateful for their good fortune.” Her eyebrows rose as if seeking confirmation that her comment had registered.

I walked past her into the hall and turned toward the elevators.  “Aren’t you going back to your brother’s room?”

“Not now.”

“Well, leave your cell phone number at the desk.  I’ll call you with the results. Shouldn’t take too long.”

“Will this transplant work?”

“No guarantees, of course, but the oncologist thinks Jamie’s chances are good for remission.  He’s still relatively strong.  You could have some real quality time together.”  She paused, as if waiting for some sign of joy or hope to appear on my face.  Finding nothing but a stare I hoped was cold and vacant, she continued.  “His time is running out. The cancer is aggressive and soon he’ll be beyond the point where this transplant will have much effect.”

“If I’m a match, will you tell Jamie?”

“If you’d like.”

I nodded.  It would be better for Jamie to hear good news from a staff member. Then he’d be happy and excited when I came back in the morning.  When his hopeful dreams for an extended future disintegrated with my one word. “No.”

Back in the motel, I paced.  Door to bed to window to bathroom and back again.  An endless cycle of monotony which did nothing to dissipate the cyclone raging in my chest.  I pictured eight year old Jamie screaming at me to get out when I accidentally found him curled up in the bathtub, submerged in pale, pink water.  I had thought it was just a “guy thing.” Now, I wondered what he had been hiding.  Another door unlocked and strands of memories long forgotten inched into the light, begging to be examined from a new perspective.  They whimpered and cried from the shadows where I kept them at bay.

At three o’clock my cell phone buzzed.

“You’re a match,” said Nurse Price.


“We’ll start your injections in the morning.  And Jamie’s asking for you.  When are you coming back?”

“Soon,” I said, and disconnected.

I got in my car, drove through a McDonalds, ate half a sandwich then pitched the rest.  I circled the hospital parking lot for an hour before ending up back at the motel, counting the pocks in the ceiling from the lumpy mattress. At six the next morning, I got up, finished up the remnants of a watered-down Coke, and splashed water on my face.

Staring into the mirror, I suddenly froze.  Dad’s face swam in the glass.  It wasn’t our shared hair color, stubby nose or weak jaw line.  It was the lines of cruelty around my mouth and eyes.  So like his.  My face hadn’t suddenly changed. It was the same face I’d carried for years.

And that’s what scared me.

Minutes later, I stood at the nurse’s desk, outside Jamie’s room, asking if I could see him.

“I called you an hour ago, didn’t you get my message?”

I glanced at my cell, saw the message banner then realized I had flipped the sound off.

“I’m so sorry,” Nurse Price said.  “Your brother died.”

The corridor morphed into a classic fun house with tilted floors and spinning lights.  Faces seemed long and misshapen, their words a muted drone of vowels.

“I don’t understand,” I whispered.

“We found this.”

Nurse Price handed me a Bible zipped into a leather case.  It seemed strangely light.  I opened it and found the inside hollowed out.  She held up a plastic bag containing a vial and syringe.  “He overdosed.”  She held a scrap of paper.          “He left you a note.”

The writing appeared shaky yet strangely strong.

I can’t ask for your help. It wouldn’t be right.  After seeing you, I understand how deeply I’ve hurt you.  I can only ask that you believe how truly sorry I am.  Forgive me.  Jamie.  P.S. I never would have hurt Dixie.

A choking sound filled the corridor as I strangled in sobs buried for too long. Not tears of joy or relief.  But tears for the brother I’d lost when I was ten.  Honest, gut-wrenching sorrow that drove years of anger aside, leaving a gaping emptiness that would never be filled.

“I’m sorry, Trina.”

I felt her hand on my shoulder.  I didn’t pull away.

“Katie.  My name is Katie.”


Sue Ann Culp’s fiction has appeared in Kaleidescope and Wee Wisdom magazines, Origins, an anthology to be released this summer.  Her full length play, “The Lies that Bind” won  national recognition in the Writer’s Digest competition in 2009.  She works as a development professional helping to secure support. for non profit organizations.


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