Irene shuffles around the bed. Nan’s in the bed. Irene futzes with the tubes.
Something’s not right, she says.
I don’t know why anyone thought it was a good idea to play nurse to your own sister, but the place is always short-staffed, and here we are, and Irene is on duty. In this family, it’s always the unexpected. Like Nan here. Goes in for a simple you-know-what, now look at her.
Irene’s had a job here since ‘98. Never moved up the ladder.
Her fault? Irene weaves one tube over the other. Her scrubs are a pattern of balloons. She never goes in for the plain ones.
Three sisters. A nurse (Irene), a teacher (that’s me), and then there’s Nan. The oldest. Never worked a day in her life. She married a man who spoiled her. Nan always had something to say but we learned how to drown her out like she was a white noise machine. Now look at her.
I don’t know why they put you in charge of her, I tell Irene.
She says: What’s so bad about family? She bends over the machine, then she’s on her knees on the cold tile floor. Scrambling around like she’s looking for something. There’s a pumping sound, then a hiss. There on the pillow, what used to be Nan’s head blows up like a slick balloon. I lean in close, can’t help it. Not a balloon, although no doubt she reeks like plastic. Tupperware, to be specific. But I wouldn’t say her head is a balloon, not quite, not at all. It’s a what-do-you-call-it. One of those Russian roulette fish. The kind that might kill you.
You know what I’m talking about.
The lips move on what used to be Nan’s face. Like gulping for air. I think to myself, a fish out of water.
You think this is what she wanted? I tell Irene.
Always gotta be different, she says. Always gotta go first. Irene straightens, pushes a button. Whir-whir, hum-hum, pop-pop, fizz. Nan’s fish-face pulls tight, like it could burst. Pinch her and she pops, there she goes.
Melissa Benton Barker’s fiction appears in Longleaf Review, Cleaver, jmww, and Best Small Fictions. She is the flash fiction section editor at CRAFT. She lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio.