All That Would Happen
by Harleigh Orlando
Runestone, volume 4
On rainy days like this Dana used to wake me up with a text message asking me to come over. On the way I would stop at the gas station and pick up a half-dozen hard-boiled eggs in a bag, which was all I could get her to eat. At her place, I would open the curtains in the sunroom. She’d rest on the couch with two blankets cloaking her. I’d sit in the rocking chair so that I wouldn’t have to sit still. She wouldn’t eat until I started to read.
Since she’d gotten sick, she refused to read anything new. Since dropping out of school and losing her job, she refused to read anything herself. I started to read to her on the condition that she’d eat if I did. It was her ploy to get me into reading, something I’d always despised and something she’d always loved. She wanted to have one thing in common with her sister.
Every time we started a new book, I complained that the books she chose were depressing. They all ended with someone dying. If it didn’t end with someone dying, it ended with someone wishing they were dead.
Once I asked her, “Why do you read these books?”
She shrugged. “I like them.”
“I hate them. They make you cry.”
“They never make you cry.”
“But they have bad endings.”
“You mean they don’t give you closure. But, closure, isn’t the point of endings.” She looked like she felt very wise saying that.
“These books make me think there’s not a point to endings.”
“You’ll know it after you’ve read them all to me.”
“I’ll probably hate reading even more then.”
“Just read, Lauren.”
I flipped to the page we were on. She wanted her books read in a specific order, from least-favorite to favorite. We started with The Road. Then Brave New World. After that came 1984. We were on Oryx and Crake and she’d already decided we’d read Never Let Me Go next.
Last time I went over there on a rainy morning was about the same time she started to give up. When I handed her a bowl of diced eggs, she set it down on the hardwood floor next to the couch.
“Something wrong with it?” I asked. She always found something wrong with it.
“I’m not hungry.” She knew I wouldn’t fall for that, but she tried it every time.
“Yes, you are.”
“Seriously, I’m just not hungry right now.” She sunk into the cushions and pulled the blankets over her shoulders. In the morning light, her skin looked translucent. Her face was gaunt. Her thinning hair exposed her scalp.
“Goddamn it!” I yelled, picking up the bowl and shoving it into her gut. “Just eat! It’s not that fucking hard, Dana! Just fucking chew and swallow!”
She didn’t even react. I would have been embarrassed by my outburst if I wasn’t so shaken. Yelling at her like this should have made her toss the bowl, or at least yell back. But she didn’t have the energy to anymore. I was afraid to see her like this, afraid to be like this around her and just as afraid to leave her alone. I paced back and forth in front of her.
“Lauren?” she asked.
“Sorry, I just have to –”
“Sit down, please.”
I sat down.
“Read to me,” she said, and started to nibble on the eggs.
I read to her.
My feet knew the way to her grave by heart. I ambled between rows of headstones, gripping my umbrella. A rainy day was as good a day as any to finish reading Fahrenheit 451 to my sister, I reasoned. She’d love that. It would be just like it used to be.
Her headstone read:
1992 – 2016
I stared at the engraving for too long. This spot on earth felt unaffected by time, unhinged from everywhere else. As long as I was standing here, I’d never age. I’d never move on.
I dropped my backpack and it thudded in the wet grass. Unzipping it, I eased out Fahrenheit 451. Then, because I hadn’t thought to pack a towel or anything, I sat on my backpack.
“It’s raining,” I told her, because I didn’t know if she knew. It seemed important that she knew I came because of the rain. I visited all the time, but only ever to read privately. Never to read to her, though not for lack of trying. After she died, I tried every day for months to finish reading the book to her. It was the last residual obligation looming over me. I wanted to get it over with.
I just couldn’t ever make myself read. I would start with the last page we were on. The page she made me reread to her, over and over. Every time I reread it again after her death, I heard her asking me to reread it. Reread the part she’d forgotten about again, the part she heard for the first time, the second time, when I read it to her the day before she was hospitalized and died of heart failure in her sleep.
The day I started to read Fahrenheit 451 to her was also a rainy day. I went over there without needing to be asked. Got into her house with the key under the mat, and made her eggs myself. For some reason, I felt like making her scrambled eggs. I felt like seeing her eat scrambled eggs.
In her dark bedroom with the blinds drawn, I nudged her awake. She didn’t startle. I handed her the plate and she told me how good the eggs smelled. I smiled. I hoped.
She followed me into the sunroom. We went through our routine. Opened windows. Wrapped her in blankets. Disputed over sad endings. She stared at her eggs.
“Something wrong?” I asked.
“Not hungry,” she said, like always. “Read to me.”
“Read what? You never told me what to read next.” Last time, I finished reading Never Let Me Go to her. On the floor beside the rocking chair sat the short stack of books left to read. I glanced through them.
“How about Herland? Didn’t you say you thought I’d like that one?” I grinned at her. “Look how short it is.”
She shook her head. “Fahrenheit 451.”
I squinted at her. “Thought we were saving that one.”
“For when you got better.”
“By the time you’re finished, I’ll –”
“Because it’s your favorite.”
“Just read, Lauren.” She pierced the eggs with her fork. When she finally took a bite, I tugged the book out of the stack and turned to the first page.
“It was a pleasure to burn,” I began.
As long as I kept reading, she ate. So I read the entire day. She ate all the scrambled eggs. It took her all day to eat them, but still.
While I read, something swelled in my chest that hadn’t in the other books. The feeling was dread. I liked this book. I liked the main character, Montag. I liked that these words were words I understood and were not layered in meaning beyond my grasp. And it would all be ruined.
Guy Montag would be arrested for possessing books. Or killed by the Hound. He’d drown in the river. He’d die just inches from escape. If he didn’t, he’d at least lose every book. By the end, somehow, every last piece of paper in the world would be burned and he would never read again. No one would read to him. He would not read to anybody.
My grip left fingernail indents in the paperback covers. All he wanted was to read. It was such a reasonable dream to have. It was such an achievable goal. It hurt nothing. The other books seemed suddenly more justifiable in their despair. At least the desires in those books weren’t real things you could cradle in your hands.
Somehow, the day Dana asked me to read Fahrenheit 451, she knew she didn’t have long. She asked me to read it so that she wouldn’t die without hearing it one last time. But when I reached the last chapter, the last twenty pages, the last time she’d hear her favorite page ever spoken aloud, she wasn’t ready for it to end.
That was the only reason I could think of as to why she had me reread that part over and over. Montag floating in the river, contemplating the passing of time and the burning of the sun. Montag daydreaming about being in a barn, laying in the hay, drinking fresh milk, eating a ripe pear, and having all the time to think all the things left to think. Montag not ready to die.
I gripped the umbrella’s handle in one hand and with the other opened Fahrenheit 451 to the last full page we made it through. The gray light forced me to hold the book so close to my face my breath brushed the words. Familiar dread rose up within me and like every time before, I considered putting it off a little longer, just until I was ready.
My sister died waiting to be ready.
I cleared my throat. Aloud, I read the first word of the rest of the words I hadn’t yet read. Then the next. And the next. Until I was finishing Fahrenheit 451 at last.
Dana sat up, arms shaking with the effort, so that she could look out the windows. The rain had stopped and the clouds had opened up to reveal the low setting sun and all the colors of the sky blossoming up from the horizon. I paused mid-sentence.
“Need a break?” I asked. I only ever asked this when I needed a break.
She shrugged, which meant she didn’t but didn’t mind if I did.
“Can you eat more?”
She just kept staring out the window. I sighed and dragged my hands down my face.
“It is hard, Lauren.”
I met her gaze. “What is?”
“Chewing and swallowing.”
I squinted for a second before I remembered my outburst days before. I looked away from her. What took me a second to say she’d dwell on for the rest of her life.
“I know it is,” I said, even though I didn’t.
“You were always so thin without trying,” she said, interrupting my thoughts.
“What’s that got to do with anything?” I asked, knowing exactly what that had to do with anything.
“I’m just saying. It’s easy to say something’s not hard if you’ve never had to try.”
“I know. Want me to keep reading?” I asked, for the first time ever hoping she’d say yes. It was the only way I could think to change the subject and distract her from her thoughts. She needed that right now. So did I.
“Read that last part again,” she said.
“What part?” I opened the book back up and glanced at the last few pages I’d read.
I read it again, thinking nothing of it. Once in a while, she missed something if she zoned out. But she surprised me when she asked me to read it the third time.
“I forgot about that part.”
“I’ve read that book so much I’ve memorized parts. I can’t believe I forgot something.”
I didn’t see what was so important about it, but I reread it to her each time she asked.
“It’s late,” I said, after I’d had enough. It wasn’t that late.
Dana’s cheeks gleamed in the starlight. She’d been crying silently while I read.
“Just one more time,” she said, under her breath. “Really slow.”
I hesitated. Something in her tone had made me feel sick. I was sick of reading this part and also sick of reading and now I was just plain sick.
“Why, Dana?” I was about to plead my case. I would come over tomorrow. I’d reread this part to her a hundred more times. As slow as she wanted me to.
“Because,” she whispered. “I don’t want that part to end yet.”
“Isn’t it beautiful? To want nothing more from life than time to think everything that’s never been thought before?”
“To think all the things that must be thought,” I corrected, wondering how she still couldn’t get the words right.
“I didn’t catch that part those other times I read it,” she said, and her eyes wandered toward the windows again. The sky was dark. The stars were dim. “It’s the last part before everything changes.”
“Because the Hound’s about to get him, huh?”
She huffed out a laugh. “That’s what you think happens?”
“It’s got to, doesn’t it? That’s the worst bad ending I can think of.”
She smiled. “The ending is never what you think. That’s how all books end.”
I arched an eyebrow at her. “If you say so.”
“But this part is better than any ending I could think of. Better than the actual ending.”
“I don’t see what’s so great about it.”
Her eyes met mine and she smiled wider. “Read it again.”
My tears stained the last page.
Montag escaped the Hound.
He didn’t drown in the river either.
He found people that read to him, people he read to.
He memorized the words he read so that no one could ever burn them.
And it wasn’t that nothing bad happened, or that no one died, or that I had nothing to be depressed about. But as I read the last words, and knew all the bad that would happen, had happened, I heaved I was so relieved.
I knew now that I would have never been ready for it to end.
Readiness must not have been the point of endings any more than closure was.
I wondered then, if my sister knew being ready wouldn’t make a difference in the end, why she wouldn’t let me finish reading that night.
Maybe the reason she wouldn’t let me finish wasn’t because she wasn’t ready for the book to end after all.
And then I wasn’t crying because I’d finished the book and nothing bad had happened to Montag. I was crying about something else. When I woke up tomorrow, I wouldn’t have anything left to do. I wouldn’t be waiting to be ready for anything. For the first time, my sister would be dead and there would be nothing leftover to make me feel as though it had just happened.
Finishing the book was supposed to help me let go. I was supposed to feel like I could move on now that I’d done the last thing to do. But instead, I felt like I’d just thought of something important, but had already forgotten what.
If only I could have actually finished the book while she was alive. The same day I started to read it to her, I could have finished it. I should have. She should have let me. I didn’t know if I’d ever understand why she wouldn’t. I read her favorite part to her so many times that day that she should have –
It was so obvious to me now that I was annoyed with myself for not having noticed it before. She was trying to get me to memorize it.
I sat and listened to the rain patter against the umbrella. I wiped my cheeks on my sleeve and flipped the book open to her favorite part. I’d held the book open to this spot so many times that the pages parted there naturally, always ready for the words to be read again. I used my thumb like a bookmark and pressed the book closed. Cradling the book to my chest, I let time move on without me and reality swerve around me.
Whatever my sister saw in those words was all she wanted to leave me with. I smiled at the thought, even though I knew she hadn’t succeeded. I held more dearly in my mind the memories of reading to her than the words I read. Dana lived in memory the way I lived in that moment: like we would in a book. Memories of a life that would last an eternity if only because she lived once and so she lived always. Her life could not be undone from history any more than words embedded in the mind could be set on fire.
University of Nebraska Omaha
Harleigh Orlando is from Shakopee, Minnesota. When she was eighteen she got married and followed her husband to Offutt Air Force Base, where he was stationed. Now she is a senior at the University of Nebraska Omaha, studying creative writing with an emphasis in fiction and nonfiction. When she’s not writing, she’s probably reading.