“Tell Me Half A Story”
by Jennifer Lee Rossman
“Hey,” I said softly, taking my sister’s hand in mine. “Tell me half a story before you go.”
She laughed. Not like it was funny, but like she didn’t want to start crying because she knew she’d never stop. But she sat down next to me on the old mattress we’d found and dragged into our shelter, and she told me half a story.
“The morning it all happened,” she said, her nod toward the mouth of the cave indicating she meant the apocalypse, “I was at the doctor’s. I thought I might be pregnant.”
I glanced at her abdomen, doing the math in my head. She would be showing by now, wouldn’t she? Maybe not. My only experience with pregnancy was when we were little, but I couldn’t remember the timeline. Our aunt just had a beachball under her shirt one day, and then we had a cousin.
Wouldn’t she have told me before this, if she had? Or maybe she hadn’t gotten the test results-
I stopped myself. Trying to logic out the ending defeated the purpose of telling half stories. Instead, I leaned forward and asked, “Whose did you think it was?”
She smiled, biting her lip like we were gossiping preteens again. “Remember that cute guy at work I told you about?”
“Mm-hm. Nothing serious, but then shark week was delayed and everything just felt kind of… different inside. I can’t explain it.” Her voice dipped quieter, and she stared at the ground for a moment before abruptly standing up and shouldering her bag. “See you tonight.”
Of all the survival skills we learned from post-apocalyptic TV shows, this was the most important: no one could die unless their character arc was at a satisfying conclusion. So every time one of us left, we made a point to tell the other just enough of a secret to make it clear – to ourselves and to God or the Universe or whoever decided those things – we had more story left in us.
Over the last three months, we’d told each other about sneaking out of the house to go to parties, how Dad’s car really got scratched, even petty theft and the time she tried to kill her abusive boyfriend.
I always thought we were close, but there was so much we had never shared. Maybe it’s wrong to be thankful for the end of the world, but our relationship was better than it had ever been. Sometimes I worried we’d run out of stories before we ran out of buildings to forage, but we always came home to each other.
That night, my sister came home with a bag full of canned goods, a few handfuls of fresh berries, and a bumper sticker assuring other drivers that she did, indeed, heart NY.
“Someday we’ll have a car again,” she informed me, though her voice carried none of its usual levity. Was she nervous about finishing her story?
I decided not to press the issue, and our dinner conversation turned to speculation about how we thought Lost ended. We’d both finally gotten around to watching it when the world went dark. Every time we met another survivor, we asked them if they’d seen the final season – you know, assuming they didn’t try to kill and eat us first. One guy tried to explain the ending, but gave up and walked into the woods around the time the Smoke Monster’s origin story got involved.
But then it was bedtime, and as we lay side-by-side like we used to do as children, she whispered, “I need to tell you the other half of my story.”
I nodded, not saying anything.
“I wasn’t pregnant. My doctor said it was something else. Everything happened before I got the results, but we did a biopsy. Last week when I went scavenging, I went to the hospital. Everything useful had been taken. The supplies and meds. Not the medical records.”
I stared at her silhouette in what dim moonlight reached the inside of our cave, knowing what she was about to say but desperately hoping for a last minute plot twist.
The word was hardly out of her mouth when I said, “Tell me half a story.”
My sister told me half a story every night. She called herself Scheherazade, and seemed to think it was hilarious. I’d never been much for classic literature, which is probably why she thought she could get away with stealing stories from books. I only caught on when I recognized the thinly veiled plot of The Prince and the Pauper from an episode of Wishbone.
I didn’t call her on it. We needed every story she could get, as her health deteriorated.
“Tell me half a story,” I said as I tied my shoes in preparation of going scavenging. I’d just about exhausted all the resources within half a day’s walk, and didn’t dare go farther. Not with the things that roamed at night. We’d always talked about relocating, but she was too weak now.
She patted the mattress, and I went to sit by her.
“Did I ever tell you about the first time I met you?” she asked, and a knot twisted in my stomach. This sounded like the kind of conversation people had at the end of their character arcs.
I shook my head.
“I stayed with our grandparents while Mom and Dad were at the hospital. I remember being worried that you wouldn’t like me, so I spent hours making presents for you. I think I went through an entire box of markers, drawing cards and pictures and storybooks.” She laughed softly, and leaned against the wall for support.
She thought I didn’t notice how tired she was all the time.
“When we finally got the call, I was terrified. What if I wasn’t a good big sister? What if I we didn’t get along? What if I dropped you?”
I rubbed the back of my head, trying to be funny when all I wanted to do was throw up. “I do have this weird bump…”
“Not my fault. I never dropped you. Dad, maybe, but not me. I remember walking through the hospital, my arms full of drawings and stuffed animals. And then we stepped into the room-”
“So I’ll see you tonight?” I asked, standing.
She took my hand, pulled me back down. “Let me finish my story.”
My eyes blurred with tears. “No,” I pleaded. “Save it for when I get back.”
“-and I saw you bundled up in Mom’s arms, and I dropped everything on the floor because the second I laid eyes on you, I knew I’d just met my best friend. I knew we’d love each other no matter what.”
It felt like a black hole had taken root in my chest, sucking in all the light and hope in my world.
But she wasn’t done. “I wasn’t the perfect sister, not any more than I was the perfect daughter or the perfect person. I should have protected her, not told her there was a monster hiding in the garbage disposal. I could have done more for her, could have been her partner in crime in all those schemes she hid from our parents instead of going off to hang out with my friends.”
“You were perfect,” I argued, then caught myself. “Are perfect.”
She shook her head. “I wasn’t, but that’s okay, because when the world ended and the monsters came? My sister dropped everything to be with me; no one else. And she kept me alive longer than I should have lived.” She put her hand on my cheek. “And now she’s going to keep herself alive.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but only a sob came out.
“My story is ending. I’m not happy about it, but there’s nothing I can do. So do your sister a favor and tell me half a story so I know you’ll be okay.”
I was lost. In a personal sense and a literal one; my sister was always the better navigator, and the blowing snow obscured any landmarks.
And then there were the monsters.
We’d never known exactly what they were. Aliens, or irradiated mutants. Maybe they were made of smoke.
Whatever they were, they couldn’t be killed. That’s what all the other survivors said, the ones we met in the beginning. They told us stories about the monsters taking out entire armies, withstanding nuclear weapons without showing any weaknesses.
All of those people died, because they made the mistake of thinking they were at the end of their stories. Monsters come, humans die, the end.
Before my sister died, I told her that I would change all that. I didn’t know how, but I would.
I had to, because if TV taught me anything, it’s that deathbed promises always come true. They’re just too dramatic and pivotal not to. They’re the kind of plot point that propels characters into new and meaningful arcs.
They don’t come without profound loss, though. If there’s one thing that pisses fans off, it’s a beloved character’s death being reduced to tragic backstory for someone else. Well, that and a cliffhanger ending.
I resolved not to let that be my sister’s fate. I wouldn’t let her memory be nothing more than a general air of brooding that would bubble to the surface just when I needed to grow as a person. No, I would live every day with her at the forefront of my mind, and I would keep my promise to her.
I would find a way to end the end of the world.
If you’d like, I’ll tell you how I discovered their weakness, how I came to be standing here with a dead monster at my feet. It’s quite a tale.
But of course, it’s only half the story.
Jennifer Lee Rossman is a queer, autistic, and disabled author from Binghamton, New York. She has been published in over 30 anthologies, two of which, Love & Bubbles and Space Opera Libretti, she co-edited. Read more of her work on her blog http://jenniferleerossman.blogspot.com and follow her on Twitter @JenLRossman