Pretend She's Here(10)

“She does,” I said, choking up.

“But she will go on, I promise you. You live with us now,” Mrs. Porter said.

“No, I don’t! I can’t!”

“Emily—and this is the last time you will hear that name—you will get used to it. You have to. So will they.”

“NO! You know that’s not true.”

A distant look entered her eyes. “When she was born,” she said, “I used to check to make sure she was breathing. Every night, standing over her crib. She was such a healthy baby, but that didn’t matter. I loved her so much, I had no idea such love was possible. Babies are so tiny, and you think they’re fragile. But then … they grow, and they keep breathing, and after a while you forget to worry.”

I listened to Mrs. Porter’s voice. It was thin, as thready as spiderwebs, and she stood up from the bed and began to pace slowly around the room, as if she was sleepwalking.

“When she got sick, I refused to believe it could be bad. It just wasn’t possible. She was my child, my beloved girl, and she was strong, and she was good. Every checkup, her entire life, showed how healthy she was. Her illness … it came on so fast.”

“I remember,” I said, tearing up to think of those weeks when Lizzie went from shining bright as a star to dimming away, fading out of the sky.

“Time slowed down,” Mrs. Porter said.

“It did,” I said. “When things got really bad with her, when we knew she wasn’t going to get better, I heard every single second of the day tick by in my head. I wanted to hold on to each one, make it last longer so she would stay.” But of course she didn’t. Losing Lizzie was an explosion. It had ripped through me, left a hole where my heart used to be. The part of me that had a best friend was gone, destroyed.

“When the doctor told me she had days—not years, not her whole life—I wanted to die before she did. It was the simplest wish I’d ever had,” Mrs. Porter said.

I looked up at her. “But you have another daughter. She needs you,” I said.

“I love Chloe; there is no doubt about that. And she is so dear—you saw how she colored her hair and how she curls that one section, just like her big sister. To help me, to try to keep Lizzie alive in our lives.”

“Lizzie is in your life,” I said. “Talk to her, the way I do. She’ll never leave.”

“That’s a nice thought, but you don’t understand. She was your friend, not your daughter. For so long, since those last days in the hospital, I’ve thought there is no way I could be on this earth without her.”

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“I thought I would have to die. I wanted to.”

“You don’t have to,” I said.

“And then I thought—I have to bring her back,” she said.

“I wish more than anything that was possible,” I said.

“But it is possible. With you.”

I shook my head. “You already found out, Chloe can’t be Lizzie. And neither can I,” I said, my voice shaking. “No one can. There’s only one Lizzie! You’re not being fair to her to think you can just replace her!”

“You were so close, the two of you,” Mrs. Porter said. “Hearing your voice right now brings hers back to me. You know, if I close my eyes, your voices merge together, and after a while I hear only hers.”

“But it’s me talking!”

“‘Me,’” she said. “What a funny word. Who is ‘me,’ who are ‘you,’ after all? I suppose it depends on who is asking the question. To me, you are Lizzie. Maybe we started too soon, calling you by that name as soon as we got on the road. I honestly thought it would make things easier.”

“Easier?” I shouted.

“Please don’t raise your voice to me,” Mrs. Porter said, rage in her eyes, a look I’d never seen on her before. “I’ve cooked a nice meal for you. I’ve taken care of you—stitched that cut in your head, put a bandage on your ankle. And I will continue. I will treat you like my own child because you are my own child now. I need you. Haven’t I explained that?”

She was crazy, that was the only explanation. She had lost her mind.

“Do you understand?” she asked, insistent.

“No,” I said. “I don’t.” I stared into her face, trying to see the Mrs. Porter I had known. I searched for the gentle mom of my best friend, and I swear I saw a glimmer of her, of the sane and kind person I’d known and trusted for so long. The anger had left her eyes, replaced by sorrow.

“I don’t believe you want to do this to me,” I said. “You know me. My mom is your friend. You wouldn’t want to put her through this. Or my dad, either. Or Tommy, Mick, Anne …”

“I don’t want to hear their names,” she said.

“… Iggy,” I continued.

“You have one sibling now. That’s Chloe.”

“… Patrick, Bea …” I caught my breath. “I’m closer to Bea than anyone, even Lizzie.”

“Stop it.”

“They’re my family. They’re the people I love.”

Her eyes narrowed. I felt maybe I was getting through to her. I reached out and grabbed her hand. “You don’t want to keep me in this cell; it’s like a jail. If you care about me at all, you would know what a horrible thing that is.”

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