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oblivion for two

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Danny is floating, back turned to her. His white hair wisps and undulates like a cloud, like the swirling Ghost Zone around them. They’re alone, no doors nearby to trouble them. No ghosts nearby, either; Jazz is grateful. They need to go home.

“No, we don’t,” she thinks she hears him say. Her brother isn’t looking at her. “I’m already home.”

“Danny?” The peaceful swirling of the Zone warps like a funhouse mirror. They’re in too deep. There are no doors this deep. No ghosts think it’s safe enough. It’s not safe here. This isn’t home. Danny needs to run.

“But Jazz,” he says, still not facing her, “why should I?”

What?

“Why should I run? Aren’t you curious?” Beside him, her mother checks something off a clipboard splattered with green. It drip-drip-drips down her wrist, staining her lab coat.

A Y-shaped incision splurts into existence on his chest, HAZMAT falling to tatters. Danny jerks around to face her, face draining of its glow, and he’s smiling.

“But Jazz,” her brother says with a rictus grin, “don’t you want to know what’ll happen when I die? Aren’t you curious?” Her mother returns his smile, scalpel in hand. “Aren’t you curious?” they ask together.

The glow behind her brother’s irises dies, leaving nothing but a terrible, terrible corpse behind, a spirit haunting its own body and his eyes rot out and leave black stains behind and he’s still smiling when he reaches for her shoulder—

Jazz startles awake and lurches out of her room. She’s lucky. This time, she manages to get her vomit in the toilet, not on the bathroom tile.

It’s a small eternity until the cramping in her gut clears up enough for her to limply smack the flush. Her inhales are too sour to cope with, so she stands up and turns on the faucet and tries to ignore the image of the dripping green Y that she sees with every blink.

Her mouth is clean, water running off her chin. Washed out, no sour left. The faucet is loud. Too loud. The bathroom fluorescents flare all too guiltily out from under the bathroom door. She slams the faucet shut. She pushes the mat in front of the tub over to cover up the glow. The sound of running water is loud, a dead ringer that someone is awake when they shouldn’t be, and Jazz is supposed to be asleep now, she always has to be good, always, she has to be the good sibling so that Mom and Dad will eat her lies because if they don’t—

Aren't you curious? her mother's voice asks her.

Jazz shakes. She needs to open the door. She needs to get out and check on Danny. She needs to make sure he’s still breathing and half-alive. Temperature just north of fatal at seventy degrees Fahrenheit, thirty heartbeats and seven shallow breaths per minute. She needs to open the door.

Get up. Open the door.

She sits down on the rug instead. She’s already made too much noise. If she makes too much noise, she’ll wake up Mom and Dad, and if she wakes them up—if they see her—if they see Danny—

She can’t let them see Danny. He might not even be in bed right now. He’s probably out, fighting, or doing his homework at four in the morning because he was already out fighting, or maybe he’s still outside, bleeding out in a cold alleyway, and her little brother will have to figure out what happens if he dies again and solve that terrible mystery of oblivion all alone and Jazz realizes she’s crying. Tears slide down her face, utterly silent. She knows she’s panicking. She needs to stop it. She needs to go out and see Danny. She needs to go back to bed. She doesn’t want anyone to hear her. To see her. A flaring contradiction. She needs to leave the bathroom and she needs to stay in this safe, small space where she can break into pieces without anyone seeing her.  She wants nothing more than to become invisible. She laughs a little at the awful irony.

She needs to see Danny. Jesus.

Get up.

Slowly, she wipes her tears on her pajamas. She turns on the faucet low so that only a silent, smooth stream of water comes out. Too little and it sputters. Too much and it sprays. Both are loud. It was too loud before. She wasn't being careful. Are Mom and Dad awake?

Breathe. Breathe. Box breathing. Anxiety management technique. She needs to do better. No, it's okay to be flawed. You've been studying this, she chides herself. It’s okay to struggle with coping.

The box breathing doesn't come. She looks in the mirror for a moment and has to look away almost immediately. She looks like shit under the bathroom fluorescents, dark bags and eyes a shameful red to match her hair and ruddy face. She cups some water from the running sink and presses it to her eyes. Okay, forget the box breathing. Physical grounding. You can do this, Jazz, you’re a straight-A student and you can handle this. Be a good sister. Be the best sister. Unhealthy thoughts. Whatever. She's too tired to deal with it right now. Cold water to the eyes. The icy liquid trails down her neck, and she lets her pajamas get wet so she can focus on the sensation. Cold. Here. Jazz is here, in the bathroom, and everything is probably okay.

She shuts off the faucet and looks in the mirror. Eyes are a bit red, but nothing Danny would notice, even with his keen vision. Good. She towels off her face.

Now. Leave the safety of the bathroom.

The handle stares mockingly at her.

She takes a deep breath in. Deep breath out. Turn off the lights, move the rug, open the door, step outside. Four easy steps. Look at the light switch and count down from five, four, three, two, one—

She flicks the light off first, plunging her in darkness. The afterimage of the bathroom flares before her eyes.

She toes the rug back into place by pure feeling, settling it into place. 

She turns the handle of the door and presses her weight against it so that it won't creak when she opens it. She’s gotten too used to all the places in the house that make too much sound. The door eases open silently, and she lets out a breath that she didn’t know she was holding.

She steps outside.

Out in the hallway, moonlight from the window paints everything in a serene blue. Her parents’ bedroom door is firmly shut, a pair of placid snores coming from it.

The panic fades. They were never going to wake up to begin with. The vise around her lungs cracks open the tiniest bit. Jazz feels like an ant, and about as smart as one, too.

She pads silently to her brother’s room and opens the door. His bedroom door never squeals like the bathroom door, and it opens to show Danny, slumped over his homework on his desk. His lamp is still on, yellow and glaring. The slow, barely-there rise of his chest is steady.

The creature of her gut finally uncurls. Her shoulders drop.

Jazz walks inside and flicks the lamp off. He turns it on in case their parents check on him at night, not because he needs it anymore. Danny doesn’t wake, but imperceptibly drifts closer to her—some ghostly instinct to stay close to those he protects, she surmises, by the way he levitates an inch shy of the actual chair seat. Something in her heart melts when Danny’s subconsciously floating head bumps into her ribs. Jazz lifts him like she did when they were kids, one toddler hefting another. His head fits in the dip of her shoulder even today, but his gangly legs knock with hers, lazily drifting. It’s not hard to lift him, even when he doesn’t float. He needs to eat more.

She brings him over to his bed and settles him under the covers. Tucks him in, brushes his hair out of his face. Somewhere along the line, he’s floated and shifted to face her, one hand poking out of the blanket and reaching out to her.

She looks at the clock. Four thirty in the morning.

She sits down on his carpet instead of going to her room and slips her hand into his. Danny’s fingers are hypothermic. She thumbs his wrist and finds his pulse, beating every other second. Her breaths are in phase with his, a two to one ratio.

They stay like that for some time. Danny, at home and safe and just as alive as he’s meant to be. Jazz, keeping watch. Always her brother’s keeper.

Jazz looks up. A mauve dawn peers through the slats of the window shades. She knows she has to leave; if Danny wakes up to Jazz holding his hand, he’s going to throw such a fit, and they have school tomorrow. Today. Whatever.

She smiles, unlinking their fingers and pressing a quiet kiss to his cool forehead. Danny floats for just a second, chasing her up, before settling back down once she steps back far enough.

She walks back to her room, perfectly silent. She sits on the bed and watches the sky slowly brighten. Jazz Fenton wakes with the sun rising, fourteen breaths a minute, and doesn’t cry again.