I am five years old and I'm sitting on the living room carpet and my sister is eighteen and she has brought me a present, she has brought me a GI Joe dressed as a combat ready United States Marine, and the package lies half stripped of wrapping paper on the floor in front of me and I can see the face of GI Joe through the cellophane window of his carton and he has blue eyes and he has a welted scar on his cheek. My mother's face is gray.
I'm not sure why I am getting a present when my sister has come home from the hospital. I know she is sick but I won't know how sick until she dies later that year and I won't hear the word "cancer" until several years after that. What I do know is that my sister has a misshapen face that hurts her, that she often carries an unpleasant odor with her, that she is gone for long periods of time that require long drives to hospitals where I sit in waiting rooms while my parents visit with her, that I must be a good boy and not draw attention to myself while my sister is sick. Perhaps this GI Joe is a payment for my good behavior, a bribe for continued goodness. My father kneels next to me, glances at the doll, and tousles my hair. I find the gesture disturbing, unnatural, and false.
My sister smiles at me from her wheelchair and I thank her for my GI Joe but I do not unwrap it further. My mother reaches down to remove its wrapping paper but I do not open its box. Though I know I could play with it, could make up a story in which to put GI Joe and act out a violent adventure with him, I can't think of a time that would be good to do that. I know I should wait, I want to wait for the right time to enjoy my present, and I'm not sure when that right time will ever be.
I stay on the floor near but not under the feet of the grown-ups and with my hands I turn GI Joe and his box, which even then I realize could also be his coffin, but I am really listening to the conversation that moves back and forth between my parents and my sister. They are talking about "keemo" again and I have learned to hate that word and the way it makes my sister cry when she goes to get her "keemo" and the way she shakes and vomits and cries after she has gotten her "keemo." They have told me that "keemo" will make her better but I have never believed that and I secretly wish for "keemo" to go away and leave my sister alone so things could be the way they were when my sister would play with me and my parents could smile at both of us. Now, when my parents smile, it is like clown smiles painted on. It's the kind of smile GI Joe would smile if he could smile at all.
Soon, I will leave the living room and be a good boy in my own room, quietly, and I will leave the toy in its carton and I will put the carton in my closet and I will not even think of playing soldier or of playing pretend death until someone asks me to do it. And, even then, I will do it quietly in a waiting room so as not to disturb the others.