Whenever Lars visited his sister at the institution, he felt like he was visiting a castle with only one ghost.
He was always thinking about Mika, feeling guilty about her fate as opposed to his own, and yet because he seldom saw her, it was like she was a ghost in his life.
And as Lars and his parents walked through the pastel green, vaguely chloride-smelling hallways of the Chisholm Care Center, towards Mika’s room, Lars once again hated himself for thinking about Mika like that.
“She’s just had her exercises, so she may be a bit tired,” doctor Francis said, as he opened the door. “Mika, you’ve got visitors.”
Lars felt like an eternity passed before his dad and mom had shuffled into Mika’s room, so he could go in, too, and see her. In fact, the whole route from the reception of the Care Center and to the wing where Mika lived had felt like one of those long walks he often took back in Midland, when he didn’t care for homework and had a new song to think about.
Lars would wander aimlessly in the big hinterland of the small town, with only the cathedral of the big blue sky above and the low prairie hills around him, and sometimes he would not return until darkness fell.
Return to dad freaking out, but with a new song in his head.
New songs made you able to ignore dad’s ranting and go to your room and then disappear into their world
It was a world that sometimes seemed more real than the one in which Lars apparently lived.
Lars had been thinking about another new song all day, even when he went over to Carrie’s.
Especially when he went over to Carrie’s.
It was a song about … love? Or how love is like music? It was something like that he had had in his head for a long time, since that day in English class when he first got the idea for what the song should be about.
Since then it had faded, and Lars had desperately tried to recall what was so special about his initial idea. It had been some lines for a chorus that matched both the theme of the song and the melody, but they eluded him like calm eludes a ship in a stormy sea.
Lars blinked and got back to the here and now.
There was no longer any escape. But somehow it wasn’t as bad now that he was here again … not as he had felt it would be these last few days.
Mika looked up at him from her bed. His dad and mom seemed to shuffle some more to stand in a way around the bed that felt close and yet gave Mika some space.
They had greeted and hugged her, but she had asked for him.
“Hi sis …” Lars said and felt like his voice was hollow.
He stood by the end of the bed and did not move.
Mika tried to sit up more, and immediately her father was there to help her. At first, it appeared that she didn’t want it, but she had no real way of resisting him, so he just finished it and helped her sit more upright with some pillows firmly placed behind her back.
Mika Louise Anestad was 14 years old but looked very tiny in the bid hospital-like bed, with the lift hanging in the ceiling over it so the nurses could easily pull it down, strap Mika in and use it to move her in and out of bed. For example, when she needed to go to the toilet.
Mika’s dark-blonde hair was flat against the sides of her face and had not been combed for a while, so she was definitely not ready for any fashion contests.
However, her deep brown eyes were alert and alive in a face that was beautiful and delicate, like one of those life-like doll heads she had used for her own makeup experiments when she was younger and lived at home. Right there and then, she reminded Lars of a little elf surrounded by odd and strange machinery, in a world she had never made.
And that was indeed true. Muscular dystrophy was a disease nobody asked for. It was something about the nerve signals in musculature breaking down, as Lars had understood it, and it made you unable to move, partially or wholly.
Sometimes it took years, sometimes you could live with it for years. Sometimes things just went from bad to worse in a very short time. Doctor Francis at the Chisholm Center had pioneered research into new drugs that could help stall it, as well as intense training programs, and Mika had been here, almost all week, each week for half a year. But nothing had helped.
“So … how you doing?” Mika asked. “Sit down. Here.” She nodded at a chair beside her bed. “In fact, why don’t all of you sit down. You look like mannequins the way you are standing there around my bed. It’s a bit creepy.”
Mika’s father coughed and smiled, then corrected his glasses and looked around. He went over to a table and pulled out two other chairs so they faced the bed. “I thought you would be up. In your …”
The electric wheelchair was smartly parked in a corner of the room, beneath a poster of white horses running over a prairie under a starlight night.
Mika shook her head, slowly, as if even these tiny movements were causing her pain. “I was too tired to sit up for long. I would have told you, it might be like this. The training is getting harder.”
“You are training more hours?” Mrs. Anestad asked hopefully. She had just come from work at the hospital in Cleveland and was still in her nurse’s uniform but one look at her eyes left no doubt that here at the Care Center she was not staff.
Lars swallowed and looked away from his mom and at Mika, who just shook her head again. “No, the training is getting harder. I’m not getting better. The Doc’s ‘miracles’ aren’t working.”
“We’ve been told from the beginning, sweetheart,” their father started, clearing his throat, “that this could be up and down for a long while. Some weeks will be worse.”
Mika smiled at him, but Lars could see that her eyes were distant, like she was smiling at someone else. It was what Mika did whenever he came home from one of his long walks or school or both, and there she was in her room, doing homeschooling with their mother because she couldn’t go out much anymore. And he asked her how her day had been, and she always said, “Great.”
It was the same smile. Like when you smile at a tsunami coming at you in slow-motion because you have nothing more meaningful to do. It makes no sense to run and scream. It makes no sense to try to concoct plans for the future.
Nothing makes sense at all. It’s here and you are in the way.
Like life suddenly decided to push you out, before you have even begun living.
Was this how those folks in the Bible had felt when the Flood was announced by Noah or whomever? He couldn’t remember the story, although Reverend Nakles back in Midland had told it to him and the kids at school positively fifty times. Each time the waves were bigger and more devastating and more people died, and it looked as if the balding reverend got a kick out of seeing the horror in the eyes of his young pupils.
They talked some more, about everything and nothing. Superficial things mostly. How Mika’s days were. Which days she could visit home. Which days they could visit her. What was possible, what was not possible. Mika’s life which should have been about school, about pop music and posters with horses, and maybe her first boyfriend, all of that had become strangled in a net of logistics.
After about an hour, it felt like there was nothing more to talk about, and maybe that was because they had not really dared to talk about what they all felt, but it always ended like this. Their father began tripping with one leg and glancing at the clock on the wall. Mrs. Anestad’s eyes glistened more, and the light from the square lamps in the ceiling reflected in their moistness.
Lars tried to catch Mika’s eye from time to time, to gauge what kind of mood she was in today. Soon he would be alone with her, while mom and dad talked to the doctor about progress or lack thereof. He had to know …
But Mika kept her feelings hidden well, as usual, patiently answering questions from her mother about what kind of food they had been serving for her this week.
“We’re going to talk to Doctor Francis now,” Lars’ father finally said. “We’ll come back in an hour.” He tried a little smile. “Don’t want you to be late this evening, either.”
Now Mika’s eyes came alive, and she looked straight at her brother. Lars felt terrible, but he also knew he couldn’t run. He shouldn’t. He had to find some way of telling her about … another party. A way that did not make Mika feel any worse than she probably already did.
“We’re good, dad,” he said. “See you in an hour.”
Mika was looking closely at Lars. “Hey bro, why the long face?”
Lars leaned his elbows on his knees. “It’s not about you, sis.”
He followed up with one of his well-rehearsed grins. “Hey, I just don’t get as much time off as you do in this green Holiday Inn hotel here!”
She reached out from her bed and ruffled his sleeve. Tiny moments, fragile. She made two or three wrinkles in it, before she had to give up. “Please, stop the lame jokes. You’re not on stage now. What’s going on?”
Lars’ lips twitched halfway between a smile and resignation. “Okay, it’s about you. As always. But—”
“About someone else, too?”
Lars hesitated then shook his head, thinking that maybe he wasn’t ready to get down from the stage yet. He reached into his jacket’s pocket and pulled out a cassette tape. “My three latest songs, just for you. Wanna hear them?”
Lars put the tape in the little white ghettoblaster on her nightstand. It was one of the cheap ones, but Mika insisted it was good enough, and she could lie in bed with earphones plugged in. She also had a walk-man but seldom used it. Lars had given her some new headphones for her birthday and they only fit into the ‘blaster which also had the best sound.
“I’m not sure they are up to scratch. As usual.” He switched on the music. “But perhaps my first listener can correct me on that one.”
Mika sighed but didn’t argue with him. The music started. There were three songs, all of them played by Lars only. Acoustic guitar and vocals, nothing more.
One was about a soldier in captivity, an idea Lars had gotten from a documentary about Allied soldiers who were left behind on the beaches of Dunkirk in World War II because they could not be sailed to safety in England in time.
Another was a song about a party where a smart girl steals the show, but in reality, she is very lonely.
And finally, there was a tentative version of the love song, or whatever it was, that he had been working on since early January. The lyrics didn’t really make sense yet, and Lars felt it was definitely his poorest effort. If any of the songs would make it to the official repertoire of his band, this definitely wasn’t going to be it.
So he was surprised when Mika asked him to stop the player in the middle of a chorus and rewind.
“I want to hear that again—now.”
“Eh, sure.” Lars fiddled with the rewind button and brought the tape back a minute or so. You never really knew. For a moment, Lars thought that he should have made a CD instead because the ghettoblaster also had a minuscule player with a digital display.
He had wanted to make one over at Alan’s, but then, of course, they had had their falling out—or whatever it was. And over at school, they didn’t have time to mix anything, although the equipment was there. There was only time to rehearse for the big TV show that moved closer with each passing day.
“It’s not really finished—” Lars began, but Mika shook her head lightly. He knew it was her way of saying stop when she didn’t feel she could lift her hand, or even say something.
“You okay, sis? If you are too tired, we can wait until—”
With obvious strain, Mika heaved herself a little higher up in bed, as if it was important to her to be level with Lars, who was still sitting. “I want to hear the chorus again. Don’t rewind anymore. Can’t you sing it now?”
” … Okay.” Lars hesitated but did as she asked. He began singing in a quiet voice, only accompanied by the whir from some machine in the hallway outside Mika’s room.
My love’s like a melody
That’s sweetly played in tune
“Ha!” Mika exclaimed. “You got that from Robert Burns.”
Lars was flabbergasted. “You read old Scottish poetry? Get outta here!”
Mika smiled, and for a fleeting, painful moment he saw her as he wanted her to be—whole, healthy, living. “No, I hate poetry. But I saw a documentary about him.” She nodded towards the TV which was mounted on the wall opposite her bed.
“But why did you see it, if you hate poetry?”
“There was nothing else on.”
Lars felt like it was difficult to breathe. “Oh …”
Mika shook her head again, as intensely as she could. “Dork. It’s okay, okay? Don’t worry about what I see on TV.”
“I’ll bring you some video tapes next time. What do you want to see? Dad taped that last episode of Beverly Hills 90210—what was its name—”
“Don’t bother, bro. I’d rather watch another boring documentary. Maybe something about how to make planks of wood.”
Lars was confused. “I thought you loved that series?”
Mika shrugged. “Not anymore.”
“Is it because you are … here?” Lars asked, glancing at the only window in Mika’s room. Through it he could see a small courtyard with some leafless bushes, and on the other side another row of windows with blue frames, in another part of the boxy gray concrete building that was the Care Center.
“Who is she?”
Lars quickly forgot all about blue frames. “W-what?”
“Come on. Last time you fiddled around with verses like this was when you dated Megan.”
Lars sighed. “Yeah, Megan …”
“Sorry,” Mika said. “I forgot.”
Lars ran a hand through his hair. “No, it’s all right. She’s … not important anymore.”
“Then who is?”
Lars glanced at the frames again. Funnily, they had not changed one bit since 20 seconds ago.
“Okay,” he then said. “Do you really want to know who it is?”
For the first time in a long time, Mika’s smile went all the way up to her ears. “Yes.”
“You won’t get jealous?” Lars deadpanned.
Mika grimaced. “Not about a girl, stupid.”
“Well, uh … ”
But there was that breathing difficulty again.
And the fucking blue frames. They were just there, staring at him, expecting him to say something that could make his sister happy. That didn’t make her think about—
“Lars …” Mika leaned forward in the bed. When it looked like she was about to keel over, Lars reached out but she waved him away. “Don’t—”
“But I want to help with—”
“Not that, dunce. Don’t try to make me hate you.”
Lars felt the room sway like they were on a ship. “What are you saying?”
“If you try one more time to pretend it should not matter to me that you are happy, then I swear I will hate you forever.”
Lars swallowed. So that’s what she meant.
“Okay, sis. I swear.”
“Now, about the anti-Megan. Who is she?”
“Jeesh, ‘anti-Megan’? Where the hell do you get that from?”
“I read too many weird sci-fi books, I guess. Scifi is fun, although most of those books are obviously written by big boys who love space too much, and not people.”
“Science fiction is kind of about space.”
“Shut up and tell me about her, or the hate will start.” She grinned, and he could see that she was actually enjoying herself.
He looked at the clock and realized the meeting with doc Francis would soon be over. “Okay, Mika Louise Anestad. This is between you and me, get it? If you say one word about it to mom or dad or anyone else, I’ll come and break all your CDs.”
“Ha,” she snorted. “No threat. Now tell me.”
“Carrie Sawyer,” he said. And the name felt like a revelation.
Boring, bland name, some might say. A name thousands of American girls could have had.
Not exotic or foreign like Megan Szymanski.
But still …
“She pretty?” Mika’s smile hadn’t diminished.
“Well,” Lars said, “yes—yes, I think she is.”
“I know it’s a cliché,” Lars said, “but I swear when I look her in the eyes, I see a lot of things I didn’t see with Megan, or with any other girls.”
“There haven’t been that many,” Mika said, without blinking.
“What the fuck—are you some kind of girl shrink? Shut up!” He ruffled her hair and gave her a light push. When she almost fell back into the pillows, he quickly stopped being funny.
“Five minutes, Lars,” Mika said sharply.
“Right,” he said and pulled himself together. “Look, I don’t know what the hell to do. She’s not someone special, like Megan. Not in the grand scheme of things, or whatever the hell is the term.” He shook his head. “I’m ranting.”
“No, you are not. You are saying Carrie doesn’t have fancy grades or clothes or is the leader of the school something-something-important, isn’t that it?” Mika was very intense now like she was getting ready to jump out of bed, even though that was obviously impossible. “But she has something else.”
“She has.” He nodded. “She definitely has.”
“I don’t … know. That’s what I’ve been trying to write a song about.” He grinned. “Figures, when I finally meet a girl who … who I care about, and then I can’t write a bloody song.”
“Are you afraid?”
He pulled back a little. “Of what?”
“That she is like Megan?”
He looked helplessly at the blue frames again, but they gave him no answer. He had to find his own.
“No,” he said and shook his head again. “No, I think I’m afraid she is not like Megan. If you know what I mean?”
“I think …” Mika started carefully. She had heard all about Lars’ bad trip with Megan. “If she is not like Megan, then she is not interested in you because of the band, but because it’s for real. But … is she interested in you?”
Lars bit his lip. “I wish I knew.”
“Well, can’t you, like, ask her?”
“Would you believe, I tried today?”
“Okay? How did it go?”
“I blew it big time. I said a lot of BS.”
Mika sighed. “Okay, then. When are you going to meet her again?”
“Monday, I guess.”
“Not at the party tonight?”
“Not the party”, he said. “In fact, that’s the whole problem.”
Mika raised an eyebrow. Sometimes, Lars thought, she looked way older than she was.
“It’s a long story,” he continued, fiddling with the tape that he had taken out of the ghettoblaster.
“Can you tell it in one minute?” she asked.
He nodded. “Absolutely.”