Wake Up, I Miss You

September 29, 2021

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Rachel Swirsky holds an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop and graduated from Clarion West in 2005. Her short fiction has been published in a number of magazines and anthologies, including Tor.com, Clarkesworld, and Subterranean Magazine, and been nominated for a number of awards, including the Hugo Award, the Locus Award, and the World Fantasy Award. In 2010, her novella The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window won the Nebula Award. As a kid, she watched too much Fairy Tale Theatre and memorized the score to Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
Content Warning(s):
Death or dying

Terra stands alone in the middle of the room, staring at nothing. She moves sometimes like someone dreaming, but never reacts.

My poor sister, locked in her own world.

“Terra?” I ask.

She doesn’t look at me and she doesn’t look away.

“Terra?”

She frowns at something over my shoulder. It’s like she can almost hear me at the edge of things, like she’s searching for my voice from … wherever she thinks she is.

I ask, “Has anything changed?”

The elephant nurse bellows sadly.

“I just wish I knew if Terra was happy in there,” I say. “Do you think she’s happy?”

The elephant nurse’s bellow rises uncertainly.

Quietly, I say, “I hope she is.”

The elephant nurse raises her trunk to trumpet her agreement.

The noise wakes the trees outside the hospital window. They stretch and shake out their leaves. A dislodged sparrow turns toward me and gapes open its beak. It squawks “beep beep beep” and I realize it’s been doing that the whole time. There are other noises, too—a distant, distorted voice like a conductor shouting into a bad mic—are we near a train station?

The elephant nurse raps me on the head with her trunk to get my attention. Her nurse’s cap perches between her enormous ears. She wants her tip.

I can barely get the mosquitoes out of my wallet. My fingers fumble while the mosquitoes fly in and out of the billfold, biting. My fingertips swell up.

When I’ve finally taken out enough, the elephant nurse sweeps them into her saddlebags. Her ears spin like helicopter rotors. She propels herself upward and out of sight.

I should find the door. It must be somewhere. Except— something’s not right—

Is it my shoes? I can’t go home without my shoes. I double-check my feet. The shoes aren’t there. I look under the bed. They aren’t there either, but there’s a pair of empty soup cans. I put them on instead.

Terra’s raised hand flexes as if holding a cup. She makes a displeased noise. “—hospital coffee always so weak?” Her hand tips too far. She jumps back with a shriek. “Ouch! Damn. It’s all in my socks …”

She’s so far away. It breaks my heart.

Oh, there’s the door. I open it. There’s a pub on the other side. I don’t want to go drinking. I close it and try again. It’s a sinking ship this time. A ship hand shouts and runs toward me. I shut the door hard.

When I try the door again, it opens onto a huge, empty building full of teetering platforms and staircases. A man with compound beetle eyes grabs for my hand. “Poppy, you need to wake up your sister. Something’s coming.”

“What’s coming?” I ask.

He yanks me onto a floating platform. The door slams.

I look over the edge. Fragmented rooms trundle through the air below us, kitchens and bathrooms with exposed plumbing.

It’s coming!” the beetle-eyed man repeats. “You have to wake Terra up, Poppy. Before it gets you both!”

“It’s coming …?”

Oh.

It is coming, isn’t it? I remember now. The Queen of Teeth and her cannibal horde, coming to eat me up into nothing.

My heart slams. We have to run.

The beetle-eyed man yanks me up a spiral staircase. The stairs wind up and up, getting narrower and narrower like a spindle until they’re as narrow as our feet.

The railing splinters. Rotting steps drop away under us.

We jump over the broken railing, paddling through empty air until we crash onto a huge, floating platform that’s part of a library. It shakes with the impact. Bookcases knock each other down like dominoes.

“The Queen is coming,” says a voice above me.

“The Queen is coming,” repeats another voice, and then a third, “The Queen of Teeth is coming.”

Far above, at the ceiling, her gibbon scouts swing between giant chandeliers.

“She’s coming for Poppy and her sister,” the gibbons chant. “Turn them in if you know where they are, or the Queen will devour you, too.”

I hide under the edge of a huge, fallen bookcase with my head tucked against my chest and my hands protecting the back of my neck, like a child preparing for an earthquake.

The gibbons’ voices echo and fade.

I scrabble out from under the rubble. The beetle-eyed man is gone. That’s good. He might betray us.

A weird, green glow pulses over me, so intense that it sears through my lids when I close my eyes.

I follow it into the maze of bookcases. Half of them have fallen. I pick my way through broken shelves and mountains of abandoned books.

The radioactive color grows brighter and brighter as I near the center. The books get bigger, too. They’re the size of dining tables, piled against each other in a hodgepodge of precarious angles.

At the center, it’s so bright I have to shield my eyes as they adjust. It’s Terra! My sister is glowing.

She floats inside an enormous test tube. Bubbles gloop slowly through the viscous, green liquid surrounding her. The test tube stands on a library copy of Les Miserables that’s big enough to be the stage in a karaoke restaurant.

My poor sister, locked in her own world.

Through the test tube, she sounds like, “Gloop … Fontaine had passed a sleepless and feverish night … gloop gloop … breath issued from her breast with that tragic sound which is peculiar to those maladies … gloop … M. Madeleine remained for some time motionless beside the bed, gazing in turn upon the sick woman and the crucifix as he had done two months before when he came the first time …”

I have to wake her up.

The elephant nurse sits in an armchair beside the book, watching a video on her phone. I plead with the nurse. “Terra has to wake up. Can’t you do anything?”

The elephant nurse sets her phone in her lap. She looks up at Terra in the test tube.

“—Is that the unabridged version? I tried reading Les Miserables to my daughter before we saw the play, but we washed out after five hundred pages.”

“Yeah … I thought Poppy might like it. She used to listen to Les Miz on loop. She tried out for Eponine in high school and didn’t get it. She was devastated. I don’t know …” A ragged breath. “Maybe next time I should just grab Harry Potter.”

“She might wake up before then.”

“Maybe.” Tone suddenly brusque. “I should get back to reading if I’m ever going to finish this thing—”

Something’s not right. I squint at them so hard that my head starts hurting. This is confusing.

I grab my phone from the pocket of my jeans. I forgot I had a phone. Maybe someone can help Terra. Except what’s the code to unlock it? I’m dialing and dialing, but I can’t get it right. 2460? 4601?

My teeth are loose, all of them. They fall out of my mouth onto the floor like ivory piano keys.

Where’s my shirt? Why didn’t I put on a shirt? How could I forget my shirt?

Where am I? My sister was here … maybe? I have to wake her up.

A sparrow gapes open its beak and squawks, “Beep beep beep!”

There must be a train station somewhere in this forest. The conductor has a bad microphone.

Beep beep beep!”

The sparrow is so loud.

I shout, “Shut up!”

Crows and seagulls and pigeons and cuckoos and owls and geese descend on me in a deluge, claws out, all squawking, “Beep beep beep beep beep beep BEEP BEEP.”

I shout, “Shut up! Shut up!”

I throw my arms around my head to protect myself from beaks and wings. I run through the forest, branches scratching my clothes. The birds chase.

Chasing me—something else was chasing me—the Queen of Teeth, she wants to devour me and Terra, she wants to eat us up into nothing, I have to wake my sister up.

How can I wake her up? Can I take her home? I remember home. Our bedroom with the brick fireplace that was painted white and covered in little, plastic toy animals that we glued between the cracks. In the mornings when we didn’t have school, we stayed in bed and fought about what music to play. At night, we pushed our beds into the center of the room so we could hide under the blankets together even though we texted instead of talking.

Our parents sold the house during the divorce when we were fourteen. I can’t remember the last time I drove by.

The beetle-eyed man is back. He says, “—true the odds are shrinking, but remember odds can’t tell you what will happen in a specific—”

The birds form a cave around us with their wings. They leer at me with nasty beaks. Some of them stop beeping long enough to talk.

“You can’t wake up Terra,” says the crow.

“You can’t do anything,” says the owl.

“Your chest is heavy,” says the goose.

“Your lungs can’t move it,” says the seagull.

“Because it’s so heavy,” says the robin.

“You’re probably going to suffocate,” says the woodpecker.

Beep beep beep!” says the pigeon.

I gulp for air. My breath rasps as if it’s fighting through cracks in solid rock.

“Wake her up, Poppy,” says the beetle-eyed man. “You’re wasting time.”

I shout at him. “How?”

I have to get away from here. I try to run through the birds. The beetle-eyed man grabs my wrist with a snap.

“Not that way,” the beetle-eyed man says. “This way.”

He kicks at the roots of a tree. A hole opens between them like a cavity in a tooth. He shoves me into it.

The birds scream fury as I fall out of reach.

I land on my feet on white tile. I remember I’m wearing soup can shoes. They clatter and pinch. I kick them off.

This is my sister’s hospital room, but all the furniture is on the ceiling. The elephant nurse isn’t here. She must have left for the day.

My sister stands upside down by the bed. My poor sister, locked in her own world.

“Terra, you need to wake up,” I tell her. “It’s important. There’s something chasing us. It’s going to eat us if you don’t wake up.”

My sister fragments into a dozen copies of herself. One stands by the window. Two are by the bed. One leans by the door. One is crying. One sits in the nurse’s chair.

“—Poppy, I miss you—”

“—Harry knew, somehow, what to do. He leaned forward and grasped the broom tightly in both hands, and it shot toward Malfoy like a javelin—”

“—sorry, I just couldn’t stand any more Victor Hugo—”

“—Wake up, Poppy! Wake—”

“—coffee is so weak—”

“—haven’t been able to be here as much recently, but my asshole boss threatened to fire—”

“—Dumbledore chuckled at the stunned look on Harry’s face. ‘Fawkes is a phoenix, Harry. Phoenixes burst into flame when it’s time for them to die—”

“—up! Wake—”

“—got it all over my pants this time, damn it—”

“—Harry looked down in time to see a tiny, wrinkled, newborn bird poke its head out of the ashes. It was quite as ugly as the old one. ‘It’s a shame you had to see him on a burning day,’ Dumbledore said—”

“—both good and bad news: I’ll be able to visit more because I finally told my boss I was sick of his petty, punitive—”

“—up! All anyone wants is for you to wake—!”

The elephant nurse stands in the doorway.

The nurse says, “You should go home.”

I start to snap back, I have to wake up Terra first! but then my sister is talking instead.

Terra’s one person again, sitting in a chair. She says, “I have my favorite pillow and six more Harry Potter books. What else could I want?”

It’s like she’s reacting to the nurse, but that’s not possible.

My sister rubs her eyes. “Maybe I should just leave and stay gone. I’ve lost my job. Dave’s pissed at me for never being home. Mom and Dad haven’t been back for a month. Does any of it even matter to her?”

“Maybe not,” the nurse says. “But maybe it does.”

A bird outside the window squawks, “beep beep beep.”

I feel tears in my eyes as I look up at my sister. “Wake up, Terra. I miss you.”

She doesn’t even glance.

The nurse says, “You should tell her you love her.”

She’s not talking to me, but how can she be talking to Terra?

“I love you,” Terra says anyway.

“I love you,” I say.

We speak together. “Please, come home.”

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© Rachel Swirsky

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