It had been Serena’s idea to walk out on the frozen lake and have a picnic. They used to have them every year, right around New Year’s when the lake in the center of Brighton Commons was nothing but a block of ice, but with Serena off at college they hadn’t had the chance. So it was a long weekend in March, toward the end of Serena’s spring break, and a few days shy of Sydney’s twelfth birthday, when they finally got to pack their lunch and head out onto the ice. Serena wore the picnic blanket as a cape and regaled her little sister with the latest tale of how the two had come to be called Clarkes. It involved pirates, or superheroes, Sydney wasn’t paying attention; she was too busy taking mental pictures of her sister, shots she’d cling to when Serena left again. They reached what Serena deemed to be a good bit of lake, and she tugged the blanket from her shoulders, spread it out on the ice, and began to unload the eclectic assortment of food she’d found in the pantry.
Now, the problem with March (as opposed to January or February) was that even though it was still quite cold, the depth of the ice was waning, uneven. Small patches of warmth during the days caused the frozen lake by their house to begin to melt. You wouldn’t even notice the change, unless it broke beneath you.
Which it did.
The cracks were small and silent beneath a film of snow as the two arranged their picnic, and by the time the sound of splitting ice had grown loud enough for them to hear, it was too late. Serena had just started another story when the ice gave way, plunging both into the dark, half-frozen water.
The cold forced all the air from Sydney’s lungs, and even though Serena had taught her how to swim, her legs got tangled in the blanket as it sank, dragging her down with it. The icy water bit at her skin, her eyes. She clawed toward the surface and Serena’s kicking legs but it was no use. She kept sinking, and kept reaching, and all she could think as she sank farther and farther away from her sister was come back come back come back. And then the world began to freeze around her, and there was so much cold, and that began to vanish, too, leaving only darkness.
Sydney later learned that Serena had come back, that she had pulled her up through the freezing water and onto the unfreezing lake before collapsing beside her.
Someone had seen the bodies on the ice.
By the time the rescue crew got out to them, Serena was barely breathing, her heart stubbornly dragging itself through every beat—and then it stopped—and Sydney was the cool blue-white of marble, just as still. Both girls were dead at the scene, but because they were also technically frozen, they couldn’t officially be declared, and the paramedics dragged the Clarke sisters to the hospital to warm them up.
What followed was a miracle. The sisters came back. Their pulses started, and they took a breath, and then another—that’s all living is, really—and they woke up, and they sat up, and they spoke, and they were, in every discernible way, alive.
There was only one problem.
Sydney wouldn’t warm up. She felt fine, more or less, but her pulse was too slow, and her temperature too low—she overheard two doctors say that with her stats, she should be in a coma—and they deemed her too fragile to leave the hospital.
Serena was another matter entirely. Sydney thought she was acting strange, even moodier than usual, but no one else—not the doctors and nurses, not the therapists, not even their parents, who had cut a trip short when they heard about the accident—seemed to notice the change. Serena complained of headaches, so they gave her painkillers. She complained of the hospital, so they let her go. Just like that. Sydney had heard them talking about her sister’s condition, but when she walked up and said she wanted to leave, they stepped aside and let her pass. Serena had always gotten her way, but never like this. Never without a fight.
“You’re going? Just like that?” Sydney was sitting in her bed. Serena was standing in the doorway in street clothes. She had a box in her hands.
“I’m missing school. And I hate hospitals, Syd,” she said. “You know that.”
Of course Sydney knew. She hated hospitals, too. “But I don’t understand. They’re just letting you go?”
“Then tell them to let me go, too.”
Serena stood beside the hospital bed, and ran her hand over Sydney’s hair. “You need to stay a little longer.”
The fight bled out of Sydney, and she found herself nodding, even as tears slid down her cheeks. Serena brushed them away with her thumb, and said, “I’m not gone.” It reminded Sydney of sinking beneath the surface, of wanting her sister so badly to come back.
“Do you remember,” she asked her big sister, “what you were thinking in the lake? When the ice broke?”
Serena’s brow crinkled. “You mean, besides fuck, it’s cold?” Sydney almost smiled. Serena didn’t. Her hand slid from Sydney’s face. “I just remember thinking no. No, not like this.” She set the box she’d been holding on the side table. “Happy birthday, Syd.”
And then Serena left. And Sydney didn’t. She asked to leave, and they refused. She pleaded and begged and promised she was fine, and they refused. It was her birthday, and she didn’t want to spend it alone in a place like this. She couldn’t spend it here. But they still said no.
Her parents both worked. They had to go.
A week, they promised her. Stay a week.
Sydney didn’t have much choice. She stayed.
* * *
Sydney hated evenings at the hospital.
The whole floor was too quiet, too settled. It was the only time the heavy panic set in, panic that she would never leave, never get to go home. She would be forgotten here, wearing the same pale clothes as everyone else, blending in with the patients and the nurses and the walls, and her family would be outside in the world and she would bleed away like a memory, like a colorful shirt washed too many times. As if Serena knew exactly what she’d need, the box by Sydney’s bed contained a purple scarf. It was brighter than anything in her small suitcase.
She clung to the strip of color, wrapped the scarf around her neck despite the fact that she wasn’t very cold (well, she was, according to the doctors, but she didn’t feel very cold), and began to walk. She paced the hospital wing, relishing the moments when the nurses’ eyes flicked her way. They saw her, and they didn’t stop her, and that made Sydney feel like Serena, around whom the seas kept parting. When Sydney had walked the entire floor three times, she took the stairs to the next one. It was a different shade of beige. The change was so subtle that visitors would never notice, but Sydney had been staring at the walls on her own floor enough to pick out their paint chip on one of those walls with ten thousand colors, two hundred kinds of white.
People were sicker on this floor. Sydney could smell it even before she heard the coughing or saw the stretcher being wheeled from a room, bare but for a large sheet. It smelled like stronger disinfectants here. Someone in a room down the hall shouted, and the nurse wheeling the stretcher paused, left it in the hall, and hurried into the patient’s room. Sydney followed to see what the fuss was about.
A man in the room at the end of the hall was unhappy, but she couldn’t understand why. Sydney stood in the hall and tried to catch a glimpse, but a curtain was drawn in the room, bisecting it and shielding the shouting man from view, and the stretcher was blocking her way. She leaned on the gurney, just a little, and shivered.
The sheet she was touching had been put there to cover something. The something was a body. And when she brushed against it, the body twitched. Sydney jumped back, and covered her mouth to keep from shouting. Pressed against the beige wall she looked from the nurses in the patient’s room to the body under the sheet on the stretcher. It twitched a second time. Sydney wrapped the tails of her purple scarf around her hands. She felt frozen all over again but in a different way. It wasn’t icy water. It was fear.
“What are you doing here?” asked a nurse in an unflattering shade of beige-green. Sydney had no idea what to say, so she simply pointed. The nurse took her wrist and began to lead her down the hall.
“No,” said Syd, finally. “Look.”
The nurse sighed and glanced back at the sheet, which twitched again.
The nurse screamed.
* * *
Sydney was assigned therapy.
The doctors said it was to help her cope with the trauma of seeing a dead body (even though she didn’t actually see it) and Sydney would have protested, but after her unsupervised trip to the next floor up she found herself confined to her room, and there wasn’t any other way for her to spend her time, so she agreed. She refrained, however, from mentioning the fact that she had touched the body a moment before it came back to life.
They called the person’s recovery a miracle.
Sydney laughed, mostly because that’s what they had called her recovery.
She wondered if someone had accidentally touched her, too.
* * *
After a week, Sydney’s body temperature still hadn’t come back up, but she seemed otherwise stable, and the doctors finally agreed to release her the next day. That night, Sydney snuck out of her hospital room and went down to the morgue, to find out for sure if what had happened in that hall was truly a miracle, a happy accident, a fluke, or if she somehow had something to do with it.