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Emma couldn’t have been more embarrassed with her life if she wanted to be. She hated these secrets- this lie she was living. She got up before the sun every morning, trying to make herself presentable to the rest of the junior class. She took a shower, dried her hair, pulled jeans on over her boney hips. They weren’t jeans she could really afford. Whatever they had in the church donating bin that would fit her waist she wore- turning it into something wearable. She hemmed sometimes, she washed stains out for hours, sometimes. Then she pulled on her shirt, also from the bin. The money she had saved from when she had babysat and worked at McDonald’s did nothing for her- only fueled her mother’s cigarette addiction.
After Emma was ready and wearing the little bit of cheap makeup she had, she always made sure her mother was there. Not necessarily awake, but there. Then she checked on Jimmy.
It killed her, to see him. Her brother, her best friend and her hero could no longer care for himself. She met his needs, and he gurgled something, clapping his hands, a silly smile on his seventeen year old face.
“I love you, too, Jimmy-boy” she said, trying to smile through the tears that always wanted to come. Her brother was supposed to be popular, cool- maybe a jock or something, chipping away at his high school years.
She left the house quietly, scribbling a quick note for her dad when he checked in from the night shift at the factory at 7:30, about what Jimmy might need. She then pulled out her iPod (her only spurge) and stuck the headphones in.
Her music saved her life. With Jimmy and her mom, life was catastrophic. Her iPod was divided so carefully into playlists, classical, jazz, blues…then she had the decades lined up. She had mixes of her favorite songs, her “feel better” playlist, her “JUST RUN!” playlist, her “Stress relief: )” playlist, her “Goodnight” playlist and her “sulkin cuz I wanna” playlist.
Then she had her “Emma & Jimmy” playlist. She had found those songs so carefully, some of them stupid, like “The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers”- but she remembered jumping around the living room with him while it played. Others were more serious. His favorite songs before they were “Bingo” or “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. There was “Sweet Caroline”, “Stacy’s Mom”, “Fireflies” and “Gold Digger”. Then there were the songs they both loved, like, “Jailhouse Rock”, “Billie Jean” and “Born in the U.S.A.” finally, there was some relevant country. It was her favorite playlist, the one she listened to the most.
She acted at school, telling her friends everyday that she had to “work” or that she had to “tutor” or something stupid, when really, she was babysitting her brother. Even her best elementary school friends didn’t know. They knew the basics, but not how bad it was. Even his ex girlfriend, Mallory, the girl with the long, pretty curls didn’t know. Jimmy didn’t remember her now, anyway, even though they had been dating not that long ago.
“Pretty!” Jimmy would say, when Emma showed him a picture of her. “Pretty!” he would say again, pointing to Emma. “Pretty Emmy.”
Now she was lucky if she could get an “Em…MA!” out of him.
When the afternoon bell rang, she’d stuff her homework in her bag and run home. She’d release her father so he could go home and sleep (he didn’t live with them), then she’d pry her mother out of bed, as she was picking up cigarette butts and beer bottles off the floor. She’d help her mother with her anti-depressants (Emma was in charge of them, for fear her mom would overdose) and get her into work clothes, then run to check on Jimmy, and then see her mother got out the door.
“Hehe” Jimmy giggled, pointed to her as she entered. She laughed and then sighed, grabbing a children’s book from his shelf, reading until he fell asleep again. Then she’d put her headphones back in and go back into her time machine, doing her homework while she listened. Maybe that’s why she wasn’t passing anything.
She had lined up a row of framed pictures on Jimmy’s dresser. They were all of the two of them, proving that they had been and were best friends. They were dancing, singing, playing. There was one in the front yard a few years ago, Emma on Jimmy’s back. They were at the pool, at the beach, opening Christmas presents….
He didn’t have much time left, at all. She was so infuriated with the hospital, messing everything up. It was Ryan White’s story, it shouldn’t be Jimmy’s. They had given him infected blood. It wasn’t his fault his blood couldn’t clot, that he needed blood from blood donors. Wasn’t it a rule they had to have it tested these days? How did this person’s donation slip through?
But the past was the past, and now her seventeen year old twin brother was dying of AIDS.