We ride bikes over bridges. There are hundreds here, spread all over Osaka like some gigantic game of pick-up-sticks. We ride bikes because Alex isn’t allowed to drive or even get in a car for the next year. They ride bikes to work, riding straight on to the ferry then off again, then onto the train and off again, and I can't keep up. Alex and her friends laugh between themselves, calling out to one another, “The artist will not risk any harm, accidental or otherwise, to his or her body, while contracted to the company.” I don’t get the joke, the awkward younger sister playing catch-up tag-along with Alex and her friends. She explains over her shoulder.
“We’re not allowed, but when we’re drunk we take taxis, and one night Chantelle wouldn’t stop repeating our contract, over and over, and I guess-” she sees my face falling. It’s not that funny.
“You had to be there,” Alex finishes lamely and I nod, uncertain.
I’ve come here to help Alex, but she doesn’t want help. She wants to ignore it and I’m on ice around her, trying not to slip. So I nod and we ride, and there’s nothing between us but the wind in our hair and the whistling hum of bike wheels over bridges.
“Suit work is hard,” Alex tells me.
“Suit work?” I’m distracted by the night parade spinning past, screaming at me that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. Normally, for my family, it would be, but since that phone call, the one that changed everything, Alex has been ignoring us. So now I’m here, watching the night parade and Alex is beside me because she has the day off and wants to talk about suit work which she's never done but her friends have. Suit work, when you have to dress up as Shrek or Bugs Bunny and spend hours standing around, every movement bigger than life, your face melting under the heat and the claustrophobic giant head over yours. Real important stuff.
Not as important as the answering machine telling you your sister needs to begin treatment for a cancer no one knew she had. Not as important as the scrambled panic to dial the buttons to call Alex to give her the news. She was only home for a week, and went to the doctor for a check up and then flew back to Japan to be an entertainer for another year, forgetting to wait around for the results, assuming she was fine. I hear the click that means she has hung up on me, and that click tells me she needs me.
So I pack my bags, and while I’m packing I remember something from our childhood, something Alex was never seen without, something that lies forgotten in a closet somewhere. I pull him out, a bit dusty but still grinning. Gizmo, the Gremlin. We went on the Gremlin ride at Movieworld when we were little, screaming and clutching each other. Alex made me go on another seven times. Dad bought Alex the Gizmo toy and she dragged him with her everywhere she went; school, parties, bed. I hold him close now and breathe him in; he smells of childhood and is so tied up with Alex as a little girl that I start to cry.
But now I’m here and I’m not crying but she doesn’t want to talk about it. She wants to talk about how hard suit work is, because she can’t admit to herself that she’s very, very sick.
I lie on the floor of her tiny studio apartment; the one they give the entertainers who work for the company. Free from rent and space, the bathroom is in the kitchen and I’m on a mattress three feet from the front door, next to the toilet closet. Alex is on her bed and I’m dozing off when I hear her gasp. She sits up and I swear I can hear her heart pounding, or maybe it’s mine but I’m up on the bed next to her. She is struggling to breathe and I take her pulse. Her heart is racing and she looks at me with something like fear in her eyes. I reach into my suitcase and rifle through. My hand catches on an ear and I pull Gizmo out. Her tears fall like hailstones and her gulps are loud in my ears as we cling to each other on her tiny bed.
“We’ll get through this. We have to.”
She holds me tighter and I know what she’s saying; that she’s not ready yet, that she’s glad I’m here, that she doesn’t want to leave but she will come home soon. That she can’t believe her younger sister is taking care of her. That she wants to say thank you, but can’t find the words.
I find them for her, and I whisper to her in the dark. Words of encouragement sink into the night around us, wrapping her up in my hope for her future. You will be okay, you will get better, you will fight this and you will survive. Slowly, her breaths come easier.
We wake, wrapped around each other, necks stiff and knees creaking. My eyes are puffy and I blink them open. I must have cried at some point and I feel like a wet rag wrung out, left to dry in a heap on the bathroom floor. Alex is next to me, eyes still shut, hands curled around Gizmo, so much younger than her 26 years. The street noises far below drift up to us like smoke signals. Start your day, get moving.
She stirs, then clears her throat.
Alex is gone for over an hour, and I stare out the window in her apartment. I see the smoke stacks, the buildings, the cars, the bridges, stretched out over the city, people like ants from up here, crawling aimlessly. I wonder how many other people out there are sick, how many are crying, sleeping, laughing, eating. At times like this, I imagine there is a plan for us all; that we can’t all be here for nothing, that all the suffering has a point. I imagine the world is better than it is. Then I stop, because if I don’t I’ll go crazy and I do know the world also has a lot of good in it, and there’s a knock at the door and Alex’s friends are looking for her and they see that something is wrong and they wait with me.
They stream America’s Got Talent on Alex’s laptop; one of their friends back home is going to be in it and they want to cheer them on. I’m sitting in the corner of Alex’s room, waiting for her, hugging Gizmo to my chest. One of Alex’s friends teases me about Gizmo, and another one tells me one of the judges was the voice of Gizmo in the Gremlins movies.
Their voices mingle around me and I lose track of the conversation. They cheer for their friend, but I can’t; I don’t know this person, I don’t even really know these people, but I am grateful they are here and that they seem to care about Alex.
She comes in and stops short at the sight of us gathered in her room. They mute the computer, and I can’t look at Alex so I stare at America’s Got Talent; watch fire twirlers glinting in the stage lights and I think for a moment I’d give anything to be one of them instead, away from this tiny room. Alex crosses over to me and snaps the laptop shut. My neck cricks as I look up at her.
“I’ve just been to talk to the director. I’m going home,” she says to the room at large, but she’s looking right at me and suddenly I am five and I am on the Gremlin ride at Movieworld. I am lost and scared and screaming and wanting to run from the Gremlins which have taken over and then out of nowhere I feel a hand over mine; I open my eyes and see it is her hand, and I look at her, teary-eyed and she is shrieking too. She squeezes my hand. It is her way of telling me that she’s here with me, that it’s okay to be scared, that we don’t have to face the Gremlins alone.
This has been an intersection with the ever lovely . I wanted our team name to be whipgig, but she just looked at me funny.