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Siblings receive devastating news after their father misses afterschool pickup

The cafeteria was empty and silent. Only two people were there, shivering, naive, and alone. My brother and I.

My brother, Alikhan, was determinedly drawing a design for a school beanie that was going to be used as a graduation present for the fifth-graders of PS11. I muttered to myself quietly, restlessly shifting from foot to foot. However, I had good reason to.

About an hour and a half earlier, all after-schools were finished, and I watched with a mixture of longing and worry as we saw friends, classmates, and people we barely knew walk away with their parents, excitedly recounting their school day to them. They were going home to a warm, loving family, who probably had a home that didn’t smell faintly of the none-too-pleasant school lunch. Instead, I was stuck in a cafeteria, with Alikhan, who was too engrossed in his drawing to answer more than a few of my numerous questions.

“Where’s Papa? He was supposed to be here more than an hour ago,” I pondered. “Maybe he was stuck in a traffic jam.” I only knew about traffic jams because my dad had once been late bringing balloons to a playground for one of me and my brother’s birthday parties.

The only speech that Alikhan had mustered was, “I don’t know. Maybe he’s just slow today,” still designing the beanie as he said these words. The beanie was black and white currently, and featured the words PS11 and buildings and the White House surrounding it. “That’s probably why,” I agreed.

It’s not like we were thirsty or hungry. There were free snacks after school that nearly no one passed up.

Nearly a half hour after the answer that Alikhan had given me, I still had a small gut feeling that something was wrong. Papa was almost never late. He liked being early, and he usually always left the house to arrive at school five to ten minutes early.

Nonetheless, my gut feeling was soon bombarded with sugary treats.

Five minutes later, fifteen members of the staff came in, still wearing their work clothes, and singing and holding boxes of donuts. “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you! Happy birthday dear Debbie, happy birthday to you!”  Everyone paused what they were doing for a moment. Both me and Alikhan, and other members of the PS11 staff, were confused. They hadn’t expected there would still be kids left after the pickup two hours ago. We didn’t know that anyone’s birthday was today, probably because none of the kids at PS11 were friends with a lot of the staff or even bothered to ask their birthdays. The staff must have seen the hungry look in our eyes and immediately gave us donuts so they wouldn’t be assaulted by two sugar-craving kids.

Alikhan and I both happily munched our donuts while the staff asked us questions. Why hadn’t our parents picked us up yet? We didn’t know. Did we have our parents’ phone number? Nope. Did we have any information whatsoever on how to contact our parents’? Also a no. Whenever I think of this, I suppose the staff wondered why our parents would leave us here, a six-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy, with absolutely no idea of how to find our parents. Does this make sense to you? It wouldn’t have made sense to me either, had I thought of it. But the only thing that mattered at that moment was donuts. I was six years old. I didn’t question motives, not unless it included some sort of sweet food.

When a blanket of darkness had completely covered the sky, and when I was finished licking powdered sugar from my fingers, I started to hear the roar of an engine in the driveway. I went outside and saw, to my surprise, that the sound was an ambulance. My suspicions were getting worse, and I was more open to jumping to conclusions. I stood there, petrified for a moment, but then composed myself. Everyone had stepped outside by now, and everyone had a look of concern on their faces.

A man came out, dressed in hospital scrubs and a denim jacket, gestured for Alikhan and me to come in. We climbed into the slightly musty back seat, looking at each other worriedly. The evening had gotten much more weird by the minute. We drove past cafés, grocery stores, and malls. Finally, the ambulance arrived at our destination: the hospital. Even in the bright lights of New York City, the hospital seemed to darken sinisterly.

Alikhan, me, and the driver walked into the hospital. The driver kept looking at me with pity. At the time, I didn’t realize why. The driver led us down a sterile corridor with nurses and doctors covered in blue scrubs, some covered completely except for their eyes. I was usually scared of a doctor’s appointment at a hospital, but this night, it was more ominous.

We walked into the waiting room, which had juice boxes, a mini television screen, and a few little tables and chairs the size for toddlers, all brightly colored. The screen flickered on and started playing an episode of Blue’s Clues. The neon colors hurt my eyes after sitting in a dark ambulance for half an hour. The driver left, probably to go home. It was 8 p.m., and a lot of people’s jobs were over.

Even in the bright lights of New York City, the hospital seemed to darken sinisterly.

I looked around. No one else was in the waiting room, and my mind flickered back to the steel carts carrying bodies covered with white cloth. I shivered. Was my dad one of them, just a faceless person you might look at with pity if you didn’t know who they were? My heart rate accelerated, beating frantically against my chest.

Well, I thought I probably had enough fun, cheery thoughts about death for today, so I blanked out my thoughts and turned to the television. The bright rainbow of colors seemed more welcoming than my life right then, especially considering the fact that I was in a hospital, I was alone with only my brother, and I hadn’t seen either of my parents since when I was dropped off at school.

Suddenly, a round-faced nurse with chin-length blonde hair came in, although she wasn’t smiling.

“Your mother is down the hallway. Don’t worry. Everything will be all right,” the nurse said, although I could sense that she was hiding something big.

Alikhan and I walked down the hallway with the nurse, staring at the rooms full of fancy-looking machines that radiated a feeling of being at the dentist’s office—watching someone else and knowing that you’ll be next.

A sense of dread weighed down my every step. I took my time, nervous and also full of apprehension of what might await at the end of the hallway. Although the room, from a person who didn’t know anyone inside, the place would seem normal. For me, it was like being slowly lowered into a pit of bubbling hot oil. I knew that it would be unpleasant but was not entirely sure how the sensation felt. As I walked into the room, I saw my mom. I was filled with relief until I noticed what she looked like. Her face was red, blotchy tears dripping down her face, and with a hunched back, as though she was carrying a huge weight upon her shoulders that she couldn’t carry.

“Alikhan. Aisana.” My mom patted the seats next to her on a pillowed operating bench.

“Papa is dead.”

My body felt disconnected from my brain.

This couldn’t happen. How could my papa, brave, kind, and always there, die? It seemed to be a lie, another reality. But then I saw my mother’s face, shrouded with grief, and I realized it was true.

In books, when someone is about to die, their life flashes before their eyes, and everyone else thinks of fond memories they shared with that person.

I remembered my dad tickling me before bed, a kiss on the cheek, a Dr. Seuss book. I remembered hugging him, his stubble tickling my forehead. I remember his happy, kind face as I danced around our apartment, attempting to do handstands and miserably failing. I remembered everything, and how I always had taken him for granted, never, ever thinking of the possibility of death. Never realizing that anyone’s breath, no matter what, could be their last.

My body crumpled against the bench, my mom hugging me and my brother, saying “Everything is going to be all right” over and over. But I wasn’t going to be fooled. I wasn’t naive anymore. Nothing was going to be all right.

All right was being a normal six-year-old with a normal brother and normal parents. All right was being picked up after after-school and not being taken care of by school and hospital staff when you don’t even personally know them. So, because I didn’t know how to handle death, I decided to place the blame.

I blamed my mom for lying right then. I blamed my parents for not giving me their phone number. I blamed my brother for not being more comforting. But most of all, I blamed myself.

If I had asked my mom what her phone number was, I could have called her with someone else’s phone and told her Papa wasn’t arriving. I blamed myself because there were so many things I could have done to possibly prevent this from happening. It was my fault. All mine.

I realized that someone seemed to be crying on me, making whimpering noises. I then realized that that noise was me. And so, all as one, me and my family cried. We probably used a few boxes of Kleenex. As we cried, tears slowly drying up, my mom shakily pulled out her phone and typed in a number.

Lunch Time
Lunch Time

“Hi, Alina. I . . . Askar . . . Can I spend the night at your house?” My mom was so shaken she could barely get out her words. After calling several times, trembling sometimes too much to get out a few words, she hailed a taxi. Even though the night was freezing, in the 30s, I didn’t notice. Time seemed to pass by without me noticing, and before I knew it, I was numbly eating Chips Ahoy mini cookies in a kitchen.

“Do you want to play with me? Please?” She didn’t have to ask twice.

I nearly laughed out loud. Before, when all my family was alive, I would be annoyed. Now, I would give nearly anything to get back to normal, or at least pretend for a while.

At one point, as I was detachedly playing with a My Little Pony doll, I thought of something. Every time I took a breath that night, cursing my imagination, I thought of news headlines: “A six-year-old girl gets hit by a car,” “A preadolescent dies of unknown cause in a bathroom” (like my dad), and “Brother survives miraculously . . . but sister doesn’t. Read on to find more!”

As my mom went to bed, I slipped in beside her. “Can I sleep with you tonight?


“Okay,” she responded. As I snuggled in with her, I was mixed with the most grief and gratitude I had felt in my life.