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art by Tais Teng

Standing Next to Heaven

Terra was born on top of a volcano (in Hawaii) and since then has crammed a lot of unusual experiences into a relatively short number of years. She tamed a wild mustang before she turned sixteen. Before twenty-five, she traveled throughout the U.S. and to parts of Europe and Mexico. She has also held some unusual jobs, like training llamas and modeling high-heeled shoes (though not at the same time!) At her current day job she pokes holes in people, in a tattoo studio north of Atlanta.

Heaven is perfect. Her golden ringlets fall into her face to curl over golden eyebrows and golden lashes. Her eyes are an electric, neon blue; her cheeks are plump, like ripe peaches; and her mouth curves softly, like rose petals. She never frowns.
She is small and fine-boned, but my Aunt Janice says she has just the right amount of baby fat for her age, which is seven. When Heaven laughs, her ringlets bounce, as if they are laughing with her.
But when Heaven has a seizure, her ringlets quake and shudder as if they, too, have been overtaken by Heaven's misfiring synapses. When the seizure finally passes, her eyes are no longer lit like neon and sparkling. They dim to gray-blue, the color of Lake Michigan when it's raining.
I like to look at Heaven's eyes when they're this color, but she usually closes them and goes to sleep. When Heaven has suffered a seizure, she has to sleep for hours and hours before she feels well and normal again.
The doctors said she might grow out of the seizures. The onset of puberty might change the structure or chemistry of her brain and make the seizures go away.
Everyone hopes this is true.
I am Heaven's older sister. Our parents once told me they would have named me Heaven instead, but their friends and family had urged them not to burden me with such an unusual name.
My name is Sheila. I am ten years old. I have brownish hair and eyes the color of dirty dishwater. I coded zero on the Umar-Cardenas Parapsychological Cognitive Abilities Predictor test.
Heaven has not had the UC-PCAP yet. Her doctors have postponed it three times because her seizures are still increasing in intensity. Until they stabilize or abate, the pathways between her neurons could change. Her seizures could carve new, deeper pathways right over the ones she has now, like floodwaters rerouting shallow creek beds. If she takes the test too soon, her results may not be indicative of her true potential.
Heaven wears a pink butterfly headband to hold her hair back from her face, but it's really a monitor, and it rates her seizures like they're seismic events. The latest was a 6.4 on the Butterfly Headband Richter Scale. Her old monitor was a princess crown, because that had been all she was willing to wear until the kids at our school started making fun of her for it. The gemstones on the points of the crown used to light up to indicate the severity of her seizures. Her butterfly headband has an LED display beside her ear.
Everyone knows Heaven will do well on her UC-PCAP. Children who have seizures always code with high potential for parapsychological abilities.
The question isn't whether Heaven will have para potential, but rather, in what area.
When Heaven has seizures, I'm supposed to help her get her mouthguard in place if I can, and then go get her a glass of water and a damp cloth for her forehead, for when she comes back to the real world. There's nothing anyone can do to help her while she's seizing, but afterward, if Heaven and I are home alone, I'm supposed to help her lay down on her bed in our room, then call Mom or Aunt Janice.
For the rest of the afternoon, or until Heaven wakes up, I'm supposed to read quietly in the living room or work on my homework. No TV. No video games. No phone calls. No noise.
Heaven is on a medication that's supposed to help prevent her seizures from doing any permanent damage to her brain. The name of the medication is nine syllables long, and I can't pronounce it even when I try. It makes Heaven's eyeballs twitch back and forth in her eye sockets, as if she can't decide what to look at, but in fast-forward. Her eyes twitch and twitch and twitch, hundreds of times per minute. It's creepy.
The technical term for her involuntary eye movement is pathological nystagmus. This is much easier to remember than the name of her medication because it reminds me of the term "Pathological Liar," which is something I like to call Heaven when she's being a brat.
Nystagmus is only three syllables, and if you say the word over and over again, faster and faster, you can make it sound like "Nasty Mouse."
Sometimes Heaven tells Mom and Dad that I call her Nasty Mouse when we're home alone after school, and it gets me in trouble. They don't believe me when I tell them she's a pathological liar. It doesn't matter. We share a bedroom. At night when we're supposed to be sleeping, I can call her Nasty Mouse and Pathological Liar in a whisper and she's the only one who can hear me.
The last time Heaven had a seizure, Heaven and I weren't the only ones home. It was Mom's thirtieth birthday, and Aunt Janice had thrown her a birthday party.
Everyone in the family came to our house, and Great Uncle Logan brought over a bunch of antique plastic discs and an old player for them, which he called a DVD. Dad had to dig through boxes in the hall closet to find an adaptor that would make Great Uncle Logan's DVD route the signal from the discs into our TV. We only have one TV, a roll-up that Mom usually keeps in the closet because everyone is mostly too busy to watch TV together unless it's a special occasion. Heaven and I get everything on our handhelds, and Mom and Dad both have flatbooks that they use for media when they're not using them for work. Because our TV is a roll-up, it's all wireless and doesn't have anyplace to connect Great Uncle Logan's DVD.
It took half an hour to get it working right, and then the thing wouldn't play most of the discs Great Uncle Logan had brought with him. The images kept skipping because the discs were old and scratched. But he did manage to get one to play, and Mom and Dad dragged me and Heaven into the living room to watch it, because Great Uncle Logan had watched it when he was a kid. I'd actually seen snips of it before, online. We could have just got the full off the wireless instead of watching the skippy DVD, but obviously my parents were humoring Great Uncle Logan because he was old.
For the first two episodes, Great Uncle Logan talked over the television, explaining to us how artists used to draw all the pictures by hand, on clear sheets of plastic, how there were twenty-four sheets of plastic in every second's worth of the television show and the coloring was all ink and paint instead of pixel. Mom and Dad and everyone wandered off, one by one, to use the bathroom, to get some fresh air, to check how dinner was progressing, and eventually Great Uncle Logan shut up. Heaven and I stayed on the carpet in front of the TV because Mom had given us a look that said we were expected to stick around. Finally, Great Uncle Logan stopped talking, and not long after that, he got up and left too.
The main character in the show was a blonde woman with a sword, and her best friend was a flying pink unicorn. It wasn't that bad, once Great Uncle Logan left us alone. Heaven really liked it.
But then all of a sudden, she started shaking and saying, "Skip. Skip. Skip. Skip," repeatedly, like a dozen times, and I'd never seen her do that before a seizure. I didn't recognize what was happening until too late.
When she fell onto her back, I realized she was seizing and dug her mouthguard out of her front pocket. I took too long and by the time I had it ready she was already arching and curling her fingers into claws. I backed off to give her room. There wasn't anything else I could do.
It didn't occur to me to call for help. Most of the time there's nobody home to help us. But Aunt Janice was leaning against the open doorway into the kitchen, talking to Mom while Mom basted spareribs Dad was going to grill later. Aunt Janice saw me just standing there while Heaven was having her seizure, and she freaked out.
"Jesus Christ! Caroline, your daughter's having another seizure!" said Aunt Janice. She swept past me in three long strides, then saw I was holding Heaven's mouthguard and snatched it out of my hand even though it was already too late to use it.
Mom was right behind Aunt Janice. "Sheila, what are you doing? You're supposed to be keeping an eye on her! Go get a damp towel and a pillow so we can prop up her head."
The seizure on Mom's birthday ranked 6.4 on Heaven's butterfly headband. Heaven cracked a tooth because she didn't have her mouthguard to bite down on.
"Do you think she should be seen by a dentist?" asked Aunt Janice. "She had blood on her tooth. Davis and I could drive you."
My mother pulled a chair out at our kitchen table and sat in it. She pushed her hair back from her forehead with the back of her hand. She had barbecue sauce on her cheek.
The kitchen window was open. Dad and Uncle Davis and Great Uncle Logan and some other members of our family stood out on the deck smoking. Well, watching Great Uncle Logan smoke, anyway. Earlier, before Heaven's seizure, the men had all shared a cigar, but Great Uncle Logan was the only one in our family who could afford to buy tobacco, what with all the taxes on smoking and things.
I liked the cherry smell of Great Uncle Logan's cigars, so I sat on the kitchen floor under the window. Aunt Janice gave me evil looks.
"I don't know, Jan," said Mom. "I don't know if we can find a dentist open on a Sunday. Besides, she's sleeping."
"You could take her to the E.R. I would think a 6.4 rates high enough to call for a doctor's exam."
Mom pulled her lower lip into her mouth and worried it with her teeth.
From out on the deck, Dad said, "It was a baby tooth, Janice. Relax. It's going to fall out anyway. She'll be fine."
Aunt Janice looked skeptical.
Mom rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Dr. Lahiri said there were things they could do to reduce the intensity of her seizures, but treatment might be dangerous and could interfere with her development. She can't go on a higher dose of her medication. Beyond that, we have to look at surgical intervention. Dr. Lahiri said we shouldn't do anything else unless she hits 7.5"
Aunt Janice continued to look skeptical.
Heaven and I go to Nicklebee Elementary School, which is only three blocks away from our house. We used to walk together both in the mornings and afternoons, but lately Heaven has needed extra help in reading because her nystagmus makes it hard for her to focus. Mom drops Heaven off early on her way to work, and later I walk to school alone. We still walk home together at the end of the day.
Nicklebee is a public school, so everyone takes placement tests every year. If we don't pass our testing targets, the school administrators will dismantle our playground equipment, cancel all field trips and extracurricular activities, take away Ice Cream Fridays, and everyone will have daily study hall instead of recess. We hear these threats every year before testing week, but that doesn't make them less effective.
Taking tests is the one thing I'm good at. I always pass them, and I often make perfect scores. Except on the UC-PCAP, but I only had to take that once. Besides, failing the UC-PCAP doesn't count against the school's government funding. The para classes are all funded by private corporations.
At Nicklebee, the para classrooms are in the specials hallway along with the music room, the art room, the history room, and at the end of the hall, the gym. Normal kids rotate through the specials classrooms and the gym during specials hour. Gifted kids don't have to go to music or art or history. They rotate through whichever para classes might help them develop whatever potential they're coded for. They have their own gym specials, doing stuff that might help trigger parakinetics kids.
I've only been in one of the para classrooms, and only once, when I took the UC-PCAP.
The UC-PCAP test machine looks a lot like lie detector machines I've seen on vids. When I took the test, the machine was in a little room about the size of a closet, in the corner of the para room. At first I thought the room was a bathroom like they have in the kindergarten classes, because there was a sign mounted over the door lit up with the words "in use." Turned out it was actually an isolation room designed to insulate the machine and prevent it from accidentally picking up a signal from anyone other than the target.
In the isolation room is: a security camera, mounted high in one corner of the room; a desk and chair; an old notebook computer loaded with a range of self-adjusting test-administration software; and beside the desk, a wheeled cart holding the UC-PCAP test machine, its harness of wires, cuffs, and sensors; and its printer, constantly scratching rows of lines onto an endless roll of paper, like a seismograph measuring parapsychic earthquake activity in the brain.
I wasn't nervous when I took my UC-PCAP. I thought I'd do well. Why should the UC-PCAP have been any different than any other test?
When it was my turn, I followed Mrs. Gibson into the isolation room and listened to her explain everything as she connected sensors and cuffs to my head and arms. My job was to sit at the desk and do whatever the program on the notebook computer told me to do. The printer would continue to print as I worked through the program. Mrs. Gibson warned that sometimes the printer was noisy, but I should just ignore it. I wasn't allowed to remove any of the sensors or cuffs attached to me, and if I did, or if I moved out of the chair during the test, my test results would be invalidated. If I touched the printer, I could be expelled from school. The security camera would be watching.
While Mrs. Gibson was in the room, the printer scribbled merrily. Once she exited and the door latched, the sound of scribbling became a single, constant, flat-line scratch. Not until Mrs. Gibson cracked the door open again at the end of the test did the printer scribble anything other than a steady row of straight black lines.
Bedtime at our house is at eight p.m. on a school night. When I was in the second grade, because I was doing well in school, I weaseled Mom and Dad into letting me say up until nine, but Heaven started kindergarten the next year and we share a bedroom, so they rolled bedtime back to eight again, and it's been eight ever since.
After Heaven had the seizure on Mom's birthday, she slept for four hours, until everyone had finished dinner. She woke up just in time for cake and ice cream, and after that she bounced around the house like a monkey. Everyone thought it was precious.
I went to my room and played Legend of the Ages even though I wasn't supposed to play games when we had guests over. No one seemed to notice.
Sometime before bedtime, Heaven came into our room. I turned off my handheld and put it away in its case. That way if she tried to tell on me for playing Legend of the Ages, I could deny it and she wouldn't be able to prove anything. I got out a book and propped myself up with pillows to read, instead. Heaven sat on her bed and watched. Her eyeballs kept doing that back and forth twitchy thing, like they were vibrating. Mom must have just made her take her medication.
I made a point of enjoying my book as much as possible. Heaven couldn't read a book with no pictures yet, because of the nystagmus, so I knew it would make her jealous. I even laughed at parts of the story when they weren't funny, because I knew she'd feel bad that I could read it but she couldn't.
Eventually she stopped staring at me, put her pajamas on, and went to sleep, even though Mom hadn't told us it was lights out yet.
The book was actually pretty boring, but I kept reading until Mom shut our bedroom light off. Just in case Heaven was faking.
At the start of every school year, fourth- and fifth-graders who live within walking distance of Nicklebee are invited to sign up to stay an hour after school, once a week, and be "Handy Helpers." Handy Helpers get a Nicklebee Black Bears t-shirt at the end of the year, and get to go on a field trip to a real Bears game with our assistant principal, Mr. Willet. I don't really care about football, but I wanted the t-shirt so I could show it to Mom and Dad. Handy Helpers help monitor the bus lines, help assist the crossing guards, and help the librarian shelve books--among other things.
I signed up to be a crossing guard, but Mr. Willet gave all the crossing guard jobs out to precogs and telepaths first, until there weren't any left. In fact, all the good jobs went to Gifted kids first. I got picked to wipe down the marker-boards in the specials hallway.
I was a custodian's assistant.
I didn't want anyone to make fun of me, so when we walked home after school that day, I told my friend Kayla that I'd been asked to help staple papers in the copy room next to the front office.
"Oh," she said, slumping her shoulders. "I have to help the janitor clean marker-boards in the para classrooms. It's not fair. Only the Gifted kids get the fun jobs. And you."
I didn't say anything else. When Kayla got distracted talking to someone else who lived on our street, I took bigger steps so I could catch up to Heaven, who was walking a short way in front of us.
Heaven told me how she was going to sign up to be a crossing guard's assistant when she got to the fourth grade. She'd probably get picked for that job right off, since by then she'd be coded as a gifted student.
That night, when Mom came home from work, I got in trouble for signing up to be a Handy Helper.
"Sheila, we depend on you to walk your sister home from school! What on Earth is Heaven supposed to do while you're cleaning marker-boards? What if she has a seizure? Marker-boards? Doesn't the school have someone they pay to do that?"
I could have argued that when I was seven, I walked myself home from school and why couldn't Heaven do the same? But I knew why. When I was seven I didn't have seizures.
Besides, if I complained, Mom would sigh and explain how she didn't like for either of us to walk home from school to an empty house but at least we were together and could watch out for each other, and wasn't I so mature and grown up for my age, and that was the only reason why she could trust that Heaven and I would be okay until she got home from work.
The next morning I walked to school alone, and that afternoon I met Heaven in the back lot behind the school, and we walked home together. I didn't stay after for Helper duty.
The day after that, I waited in the back lot for Heaven like I was supposed to, but she never showed up. I walked home alone. The note on the fridge said:
Dear Sheila,
Your sister had a seizure at school today. Your Dad and I are going to the hospital. Aunt Janice will be over after work to watch you until we get home. Please be good.
When Heaven has a seizure after school, I'm supposed to work on my homework or read quietly in the living room, so she can sleep. And when Heaven is sleeping, after a seizure, it's almost like I'm home all by myself. But today, I'm home all by myself, and it seems like Heaven should be sleeping on her bed, in our room. But she isn't.
I keep thinking I should be in the living room, because I wouldn't want to wake her up. She might tell Mom.
I sit on Heaven's bed. The princess crown she wore until she was five is looped over the bed-knob of her headboard. I try it on and look at myself in the mirror on the back of our closet door. The crown looks silly. It's far too small for my ten-year-old head. I push it back and forth, reposition it several times, but nothing helps. I try to imagine that the gem lights on the crown points are flashing to warn of an impending seizure. I lie on Heaven's bed and pretend seven gems are lit across the front of Heaven's crown.
Heaven has never gone up to seven before. Not yet.
I'm glad my parents named me Sheila instead of Heaven. Kids at school tease her about her name all the time. Not long after she started the first grade, she asked Mom and Dad if she could change her name to Helen. They said no, but she tried to get all her friends to call her Helen anyway. It didn't help. The kids who made fun of Heaven made fun of Helen, too. They called her Hell-en, most of the time, or just plain Hell. After a handful of weeks, she abandoned her unsanctioned name change.
Sheila is a much nicer name than Heaven. At least, I thought so until I looked it up in the baby name book I found on Mom's bookshelf, in her office.
"Sheila" from the Latin "Caelia"; meaning "heavenly" or "from the heavens."
The second meaning listed was "blind," which I did not like any better.
Thankfully, there was a third definition, which was "smart" or "wise." I adopted it for myself. I never asked Mom and Dad which definition they had preferred. I didn't want to know.
Aunt Janice came to our house and made dinner. At nine, we called Mom and Dad at the hospital so I could talk to them.
"Hey kiddo," said Dad. "How ya holdin' up?"
I was not the one at the hospital, so it seemed like an odd question for him to ask. "Fine," I said.
There was an awkward silence.
"How was school today?" he asked. "Did you get home okay by yourself?"
"Your sister had another seizure about an hour ago." Dad sounded tired. "She's had three today." I heard Mom say something in the background, and after a moment Dad said, "Hold on, your mother wants to talk to you."
"Hi, honey. Your sister's going to be just fine. Don't worry. The doctors just want to keep her here for a couple days, to be on the safe side."
"Do you want me to make you something special to take for lunch tomorrow? Tomorrow's Friday, isn't it? I could leave you ice-cream money on the kitchen table in the morning, if you want."
On Friday at recess, when the fourth-grade classes mixed, three kids came up to where I was sitting by the fence watching my friends chase each other around the swing-set.
"Hey Sheila," said the kid on the left, a boy named Pablo. "Is your sister okay?"
In third grade, Pablo and I had had the same teacher, but I didn't really know him. We weren't friends.
The other two boys watched me intently, waiting for my response. They weren't from my class either, but I knew them well enough to be suspicious of their motives for asking about Heaven. I shrugged, hoping no answer was the right answer to make them go away.
They exchanged looks, wordlessly egging each other on, and the one on the right took a half step forward. I remembered him--Maurice--he'd been in my first grade class for half a year before we all took our UC-PCAP and he'd coded for telekinetics. Kids with any kind of parakinetics potential were sorted into their own class, because they could be a danger to themselves and others when they started evidencing their gifts. I'd overheard a teacher talking about Maurice once, how he was an "early bloomer."
I wasn't that surprised when the one in the center said, "Wanna know what she looked like? Like she'd stuck her finger in a light socket!" He started laughing even before he'd gotten to his stupid punch line. Maurice put his hand on the center kid's elbow--the kid whose name I didn't know--and the kid's hair all stood straight up. He did a bad impression of being electrocuted, jerking and twitching and rolling his eyes--and laughing like he'd never seen anything so funny in his life. Pablo made buzzing sound effects and laughed, too.
I looked at the pine bark spread over the ground around the swing-sets. When I didn't react, the three boys kept laughing, but they walked away.
I didn't care. It wasn't like it was me they were making fun of. Jerks.
My parents stood under the fluorescent ceiling light in the kitchen and looked at the films of Heaven's brainscans, holding them up toward the light and squinting.
"I don't know how they can make anything out," said my father. "It looks like a bunch of random splotches."
Heaven was in our bedroom, sleeping, so I had to do my homework at the kitchen table. Mom was mad because I wasn't finished yet, even though it was past eight o'clock on Sunday night and everything was due on Monday morning. It didn't seem to matter that we'd spent the entire weekend at the hospital with Heaven and it was impossible to concentrate on multiplication problems in a waiting room full of crying babies, and just as hard in Heaven's hospital room, because Heaven was in it and all I could do was stare at her head. She looked like Frankenstein.
While I had been at school on Friday, Heaven had suffered her worst seizure yet. When it passed, she'd been scheduled for emergency surgery, and a team of neurosurgeons had cut off the top of her skull and rewired her brain to prevent her seizures from killing her.
They shaved off all her hair. They cut off the top of her head. And then they stapled it back on it again when they were done poking around in her brain.
It was physically impossible for me to stand in the same room as Heaven without staring at her head. I couldn't sleep at night, even when she had still been at the hospital and I was all alone in our bedroom, because I couldn't stop thinking about how Heaven's skull had been cut open. Doctor's had touched her brain. I was sure I had not gone longer than five minutes all weekend without imagining Heaven missing the top half of her skull and running around with her brain sticking out.
And now that she was home, I was sure I'd never sleep again.
My only hope existed in the possibility that our room would be so dark I wouldn't be able to see her. I would have to sabotage our nightlight.
"Sheila! What are you doing?" said Mom. "Are you finished with your homework?"
I glanced down at the worksheet, chagrined. I was nearly finished, but I'd let thoughts of Heaven's Frankenstein head distract me again and had been sitting at the table, staring off at nothing. I only had two problems left, though. I could probably finish them before Mrs. Lanning took attendance.
I folded the sheet in half before Mom could look at it and said, "I'm done. Sorry."
"Well, go brush your teeth. It's past your bedtime. Try not to wake your sister up."
Mom took two weeks of unpaid vacation time from work so Heaven wouldn't have to stay home alone while she recovered.
Mom had never taken unpaid time to be with me when I had to stay home sick.
Mom bought Heaven lots of hats. They helped conceal her shaved head, but they did absolutely nothing to hide the angry scar that cut across her forehead, right above her brows.
On her first day back at school, at recess, Maurice and Pablo came up to me.
"Sheila, your sister looks like a zombie!" They both stuck their arms straight out and walked stiff-legged in little circles. Maurice grunted and moaned. Pablo said, "Braiiiiins... braaaiiins..."
I ignored them. I scrambled to my feet, and headed toward Mrs. Lanning, who was standing by the door to the building, to ask her if I could go inside and use the bathroom. My eyes were stinging, probably from the sharp scent of crushed pine bark, and I wanted to wash my face before they started tearing up.
Pablo grabbed my arm.
"Wait, hey-- Wait up! I just wanted to tell you what I heard in Dr. Mobley's class. About your sister."
Dr. Mobley taught remote viewing and clairvoyance and a few other ESP specials. Or, well, he taught kids coded for those potentials, providing them with a foundation from which to start, for when their remote viewing or clairvoyance powers manifested, if they ever did. Which they might not. Some kids never manifested. I stopped and turned to face Pablo, but crossed my arms over my chest.
"Mrs. Gibson came in our room during specials. Your sister got coded today. They're going to make all the kids in her class retake their yearly placements, 'cause she's a boost."
A boost was like a psychic amplifier. They didn't have any powers in their own right.
"You know what that means?" asked Maurice.
Pablo answered before I could. "It means you're even dumber than we thought."
I'd grown taller than both of them during the summer. I drew myself up to my full height and pointed at each of them, in turn. "No it doesn't, you morons. I coded zero. No powers. And even I know a boost can't amplify powers that don't exist."
"Yeah? Then why are they making her class retest?"
"How should I know? Maybe she's got a latent telepath in her class. Or a remote viewer. Either way, it's you two who are even dumber than we thought. It's sad when a zero knows more about para powers than a gifted kid."
I'd raised my voice more than I should have and kids around us were looking at me. I kicked pine bark at Pablo, because he was closer, and walked off.
But by the end of the day, we'd heard rumors that they were going to retest the entire first grade hall.
The walk home was unpleasant. Kids kept calling Heaven names, like "Bride of Frankenstein" and "Zombie Apocalypse." When we got to our house, Mom and Dad were already there, and we could hear them arguing, even when we were at the end of the driveway.
"I don't care how much money it is, Liam. She's only a little girl!"
I had never heard Mom call Dad by his real first name. It was always "honey" or "sweetheart." Or "Go tell your Daddy dinner's ready."
"I refuse to exploit my own daughter like that. It's wrong."
"Exploit her? All she has to do is sit in a room. She doesn't have to do anything!"
Heaven looked over her shoulder at me as she made her way up the front porch stairs, but for once, she wasn't smiling. When we got to the door, I took her hand and we went in together.
Mom saw us and gave Dad a look that she usually reserved for times when I had pulled Heaven's hair.
"She's my daughter, too," said Dad.
"I'm not going to discuss it with you right now, Liam. Heaven, your teacher called and said she'd be sending an information packet home with you. Do you have it?"
Heaven nodded, and, after digging in her Butterfly backpack, she produced a manila envelope that must have been an inch thick. I had homework to do, so I went to my room.
As parapsychological powers go, the ability to amplify other people's abilities isn't an especially useful gift for the person who has that power. But it made Heaven desirable to a lot of people in high places. During dinner, Mom and Dad argued with silence and meaningful body language. It wasn't until Heaven and I went to bed that their argument again grew loud enough for us to overhear.
Though Dad couched it in gentler terms, the gist of their conflict seemed to be that important people were trying to buy Heaven from Mom and Dad. Dad thought it would be good for the whole family. Mom didn't want to let them.
Heaven cried herself to sleep. I didn't sleep at all.
Over the morning announcements, we learned that the entire student body at Nicklebee would be retaking the annual placement tests, due to an "anomaly" that had occurred during testing. The groans of my classmates were so loud they shook the building.
At recess, kids complained. Some of them complained to me, but I had nothing to say to them. At lunch, my friends tried to recruit me into their chorus of unhappiness, but I didn't mind retaking the placement tests. I was good at tests.
My friend Kayla moved to sit by a girl we both used to shun. I didn't care. Kayla had called my sister names during our walk home from school the day before.
When the bell rang at the end of the day, I went to the back lot to meet Heaven. She had her hat pulled down to shade her eyes, but she was smiling and she waved when she saw me. I had never been so glad to see her. I crossed the lot toward her, but Kayla beat me to her. I couldn't hear what Kayla said to Heaven. The words were obscured by the chatter of all the other kids around us, and also by the noise of nearby automobile traffic. But I saw Heaven's dismayed expression, and I saw her jump backward an instant too late, and then Kayla had snatched her hat away.
"Give it back! Give it back!"
Kayla turned and strode away, purposefully, away from Heaven. Heaven cast a piteous look in my direction, before jogging after her.
"Kayla, please please please, give it back," begged Heaven.
"Why should I?" asked Kayla. "Everyone has to retake their placements because of you, you little brat. You're lucky I'm friends with your sister."
I followed them, a few yards behind, and tried not to listen to the snickers of the children who walked home the same way Heaven and I did. Heaven had all her stitches out already, and her hair had begun to grow back, but her angry red scar couldn't conceal itself under such a sparse covering of peach fuzz. I wished Kayla would give Heaven her hat back.
"It's really not her fault, Kayla," I said. "It's not like she got to pick her power off a list or something. It's just bad luck.
Kayla gave a disbelieving snort. "I don't see how it's bad luck." Heaven jumped for her hat, but Kayla dodged and put her hand a little higher, succeeding, with very little effort, at continuing our conversation and keeping Heaven's hat away from her at the same time. "I heard they're not even going to make her finish school."
I'd heard it, too. I'd heard that Mrs. Gibson got a six-figure finder's fee for reporting Heaven to the corporate head-hunters that look for kids like her, and that no boost in history had ever coded as high as Heaven had coded. But I also knew that Heaven loved school, and was looking forward to getting back on track academically, now that she no longer had to take her seizure meds and her eyeballs had gone back to normal.
Heaven grabbed for her hat again, but Kayla danced out of reach.
"I mean, seriously, how awesome would that be? No more school, ever. Maurice D'Angelo told me his cousin is a boost, and the kid gets anything he wants. His parents drop him off at the Willis-Sear's Tower every morning, and all he has to do is sit in the building. Maurice says the kid has three max-leveled characters on Legend because all he does all day is play video games. And he still gets paid more money than both his parents combined."
"I don't want to play games all day," said Heaven.
Kayla smacked her on the top of the head with her hat. "Boo hoo. You have such a terrible life."
"Hey--" I said, meaning to try to intervene, but Heaven chose that moment to grab a dangling strap on Kayla's backpack. She heaved herself up and lunged for the brim of her hat. Her weight pulled Kayla off balance, and Kayla stumbled, nearly knocking them both to the ground.
Kayla caught herself, but she shoved Heaven, who tumbled backward, pinwheeling her arms, only prevented from falling onto her butt by the fortuitous placement of one of the dozens of trees lining the sidewalks of our suburban town.
"Don't grab me, you stupid zombie brat!"
Kayla shoved her again, and Heaven's head whipped back and struck the trunk of the tree. I hardly registered my reaction and I'd already come forward and grabbed Kayla by her frizzy brown ponytail.
Doctors had cut open the top of Heaven's head--they had used a bone saw to remove the top of her skull. Her surgical incisions were mostly healed, but bone takes a lot of time. How many times over the last three weeks had I heard Mom yell at Heaven for running, for roughhousing, even for inadvertent and entirely normal clumsiness, and all because Heaven's skull was still healing?
"Don't you touch my sister!" I wrenched Kayla backward, away from Heaven. "She's just a little girl," I said. "She never did anything to you!"
I snatched Heaven's hat out of Kayla's hand. Kayla gaped at me, then grabbed for the hat again. I drew back with my empty hand and slapped her across the face as hard as I could.
"You leave my sister alone."
Kayla stared at me, her lower lip trembling and her eyes rapidly welling up with tears. My handprint looked like a red smear across her cheek and mouth.
"You're not my friend anymore!" she cried, then she spun and ran away, down the sidewalk toward home, wailing like a baby.
"I don't care!" I called after her. "My sister's better than you anyway!"
I handed Heaven her hat, but she didn't put it on, just held it against her stomach. She looked up at me with bright, shining eyes the exact color of the blue sky above us, and she was smiling, tentatively.
"Come on," I said. "Let's go home. I have reading homework."
Heaven's smile faltered.
"Hey," I said, "Are you still having trouble reading? Even though your Nystagmus is gone?"
"Nasty Mouse," Heaven said, like it was a curse word. She pulled her hat down over her stubbly head and turned toward our house. "I'm behind everyone on my level. And now Ms. Merona says I have to do extra work to catch up."
"Oh," I said. I reached between us, took her hand, and we walked together. "I'm pretty good at reading, you know. You want some help?"
She grimaced. "I don't want you to make fun of me."
I squeezed her hand. "I won't. I promise."
Heaven smiled. Her eyes were bright and sparkled like Lake Michigan does when the sun hits it in the afternoons. She looked like an angel, but she was the one who was going to need an angel to look out for her.
Well, she had me, and that was what big sisters were for.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 21st, 2011

Author Comments

I wrote "Standing Next to Heaven" for my little sister. The two girls in the story have a very different relationship than the relationship I had and have with my sister but, like many other siblings, my sister and I did suffer a certain amount of sibling rivalry when we were children. Growing up, my sister and I shared another common experience with other siblings: We were compared with one another. When we were very small, unthinking people classified us according to our perceived "strengths", and those classifications stuck. A consistent bookworm, I became "the smart one." My sister was "the pretty one." Guess which one I wanted to be, growing up. Guess which one she wanted to be. I think we were in our late teens before we matured enough to understand we weren't in competition with each other. My sister and I are both smart and pretty, each in our own way. We are not rivals. That said, I'd still fight for her if anyone ever tried to push her down or call her names. After all, that's what big sisters are for.

- Terra LeMay
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