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The Project
Author: Courtney Summers






She’s at Mrs. Ruthie’s house, eating one of Mrs. Ruthie’s peanut butter cookies, staring out Mrs. Ruthie’s living room window and waiting for her parents to come home.

From here, Bea can see her house with all its lights off and the front door locked. The wooden swing hanging from the tree in the front yard rocks idly in the summer breeze. The driveway is empty. All of this makes her stomach hurt, but not enough to abandon the cookie, so yummy and so soft. She wants to be where the action is—at least that’s what she heard her father say when he left her with Mrs. Ruthie. Bea made it no easy feat, screaming and clutching at his legs, a wild thing, while Mrs. Ruthie watched, aghast. (She was very relieved when the tantrum deescalated into woeful sniffles and that was when the peanut butter cookies appeared.)

Her father kneeled in front of Bea and gave her a kiss.

I’d take you if I could, Buzz. One of his many nicknames for her. Bea, Bee, Busy-Bea, Buzz. She awaited a promise—Mom and I will tuck you in tonight—but he made none. He was going to the hospital. A little sister was waiting there, much earlier than expected. There was supposed to be one more calendar picture to go.

Bea is six years old, old enough to know what a big sister is. Her best friend, Ellen, is a big sister and she’s seen plenty of them on TV. She understands it means that she came first, and if being a big sister were only that, it would be easy enough. But there’s something else about it that feels harder to accept; she sees Ellen, and those girls on TV, as slightly outside the spotlight, little more than an afterthought. Bea doesn’t want to be a big sister. She’s been the one most loved by her parents and always wants to be the one her parents love the most.


* * *


She spends an uncomfortable night in Mrs. Ruthie’s guest room. Mrs. Ruthie doesn’t know how to say good night to her like her parents do, and the next morning when her father comes to pick her up, tired and strained, Bea hits him in the side like she did when she was three and he was saying something she didn’t want to hear. He holds her wrists gently in his hands and says, We don’t hit people, Bea, you know that. She starts to cry. He lets go of her wrists and just holds her, asks her what the matter is. You left me with Mrs. Ruthie and you forgot my bear and I don’t want a sister, is what she wants to say but doesn’t. He thanks Mrs. Ruthie and carries Bea back to the house. When he lets her down at the threshold, she runs to the baby’s room and there’s no baby there and she’s very relieved. She calls for her mother, but her mother isn’t there either.

They’re at the hospital, Dad tells her, where the action is.

They meet Mom in the waiting room and Bea is confused because she still looks like she has a baby in her. Mom gives Busy-Bea a hug and waits for Bea to say something honey-sweet but Bea can’t. Let’s go see your new sister, her mother finally says, and Bea yells, I don’t want a sister! and sits on the floor with her arms crossed and her lip jutted out. Her parents exchange helpless looks over her head. Dad finally picks her up, but Bea wants to be carried by Mom. Mom can’t carry her because she’s sore and stitched-up from the birth.

Just one more reason to hate the new baby.

They keep her sister in a special place. At least that’s how her parents describe it to her. It’s because she couldn’t wait to get here and see you, they say. Sure. When Bea thinks “special,” she thinks of things that are pretty pastel and glitter-adorned, but the room her parents lead her into—after she washes her hands—is cold and scary. They take her to a see-through box and inside it is a little baby, tubes sticking all in and out of her, up her nose, kept in place by tape that barely seems able to hug newborn skin.

It’s so upsetting, Bea starts to cry.


* * *


It’ll be hard, having a new baby, Mom tells her when they’re in the family area, which cannot disguise the hospital of itself. They sit on a threadbare couch, Bea tucked against her mother’s side, her head rested against her mother’s swollen breasts. It’ll be hard, you having a sister. Bea doesn’t want to hear this. She wants to hear that it will be easy and nothing will change.

I hope, Mom continues, you’ll still have room to love your father and me.

A question forms in Bea’s eyes and her mother explains how different it is, the connection between siblings. It’s not like what Bea has with Mom and Dad. Having a sister, Mom says, is a place only the two of them will share, made of secrets they never have to say aloud—but if they did, it would be in a language only the two of them could speak.

Having a sister is a promise no one but the two of you can make—and no one but the two of you can break.

When they go back to the cold and scary room, Bea studies the baby. She’s so tiny and new. The baby seems to sense family near, her impossibly small limbs twitching a little in their direction. Mom and Dad each have a hand on either of Bea’s shoulders. Her father asks if Bea would like to name the baby. Bea wonders for a long time if she wants to when suddenly, a name finds her like lightning, in a voice that isn’t her own—as if it came from that place her mother just told her about, spun of secrets yet to be shared. The beginning of a language only the two of them can speak. A promise.




Bea stands over the body of her little sister. Tubes run everywhere in and out of her, kept in place by flimsy hospital tape and tethered to machines whose rhythmic, persistent noises offer the only proof of life. A ventilator helps her to breathe.

Breathes for her, Bea corrects herself.

Because Lo is not breathing on her own.

The parts of Lo that are visible beneath all the hospital’s trappings look like bruised fruit—but the kind you throw away, the kind you can’t even cut open to find pieces to save. Bea reaches out, letting her palm hover over the top of Lo’s hand. She’s afraid to touch her, afraid any contact she makes will disturb Lo’s tenuous connection to life.

And you are not allowed to die.

She was at the movies with Grayson Keller when it happened. The Thing. A doomed team at an Antarctic outpost who didn’t know better than to leave well enough alone splashed across the screen while Grayson’s hand was up her shirt and then, despite her best efforts, down her pants. She’s not sure what part of the movie was on when the semi crashed into her parents’ SUV, killing them both on impact, and she doesn’t know if the credits were rolling by the time they got the Jaws of Life to pull Lo from the wreckage. She’d turned her phone off, as the theater so kindly asked everyone to do, and forgot to turn it back on again. Then Grayson took her to a party where she made sure he saw her up against a wall with another boy, one who let her guide his hands where they felt best and trespassed nowhere further.

On the walk home, close to midnight, she thought it was strange her parents hadn’t texted her. Sure, she was older than having a curfew so it was nothing they had to do, but Bea likes to be where the action is and now, more than it ever used to, that makes Mom and Dad worry.

When she reached the house, the driveway was empty.

The front door was locked and the lights were off.


* * *


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