Jack looked around to see his little sister down on her knees a few meters behind him. Her face was flushed and sweat dripped off the tip of her nose and her body shuddered with each rasping breath.
“I can’t go on for much longer, we must find some water and some shade.”
“I know, little sister. Just a little further now, Old Man’s hill is just around the corner. We can sit in the shade and drink as much water as we like.”
“All right, then,” Jill said, “we might as well get it over with.”
Jack and Jill Flanagan were the two surviving members of the Flanagan clan, which had started out with a merry crowd of two grandparents, the father, the mother and eight children. Poverty, disease and freak accidents had cleared out their little house with surprising efficiency. Jack and Jill, twins, had no living relatives before they hit the age of ten. They found work in a workshop some distance from their home and the travel to and fro each day took them a total of six hours. On some lucky days they were able to hitch a ride on the back of a bullock cart. As kids, these days came far more frequently. But now they’d grown into adults and few were willing to lend a helping hand to a couple of rowdy looking peasants on a deserted road.
Jack often dreamt of working elsewhere, somewhere close to home, a job which promised adventure, travels and of course, lots of money. But the workshop was all he knew. Those dreams were never to penetrate the thick cloud of gloom that was reality. And he couldn’t leave Jill behind at any cost. She was his lifeblood, his support system. His strenuous days of monotonous work passed by far more easily because she was by his side. Whenever he felt in need of strength, he turned to look at her, hard at work, her nose crinkled in concentration. That crinkly nose he loved so much.
They’d reached the foot of Old Man’s hill, and holding each other’s hands, they started the steep climb reluctantly.
“This darned hill seems to get larger and larger every time we cross it,” Jill remarked crossly.
“It’s just the same as ever, sister. And think how much sweeter the water tastes after the climb.”
Jill did not think of it in terms remotely as cheerful as that. She did not possess the strength mentally or physically to withstand the trials that life had set her way. She had just as many ambitious dreams as her brother, but she guarded them more jealously and was more disappointed when they wouldn’t materialise. Her daily treks to the workshop and back, the continuous drone that is the life of a poor person, the small hut that they lived in all their lives, the meagre portions of food they had to make do in, all these factors weighed heavily on her mind. She felt a scream building inside of her, but she did not give it expression out of consideration for Jack.
Jack. Noble, wonderful Jack. Always cheerful, always polite, always willing to lend a helpful hand. He would go about his day’s work as cheerfully as a dog that has a full stomach and a whole strange city to explore. Worries didn’t seem to affect him, he looked at problems as “challenges” and misfortune as “opportunities”. His cheerfulness made Jill even more sullen in contrast. She was jealous of his ability to go through life unfazed. Ironically, she was the reason he was able to do so.
Jack would always be by her side, chatting away with maddening consistency, hardly drawing breath. Praising her, praying for her, helping her whenever she faltered. He ensured he was always around so that she may always have his support in times of need, but it also resulted in any chance of her finding love being stifled out. Jack was immensely respected in the workshop, and all the workers looked at him as their brother, and so by extension, Jill was their little sister. She still shuddered at the memory of the rugged, handsome Corey Williamson telling her that in his eyes she will always be a baby. Jill had cried for hours that night, unbeknownst to Jack.
Jill looked up at the hill, they were not even halfway there, her legs began to give way.
“Oh, what’s the point Jack? We trek up here every day, drink as much as we can, and then all the good is undone by the long walk home.”
“But there is cold water waiting for us at home too, is there not?”
“Must our life be an endless cycle of walking and drinking?”
“There is so much more to life than that, little sister, we always have each other,” Jack said, cheerfully. He bent down and picked Jill up and began to carry her up the hill so that she may rest awhile.
“Don’t do that. I am capable of walking myself.”
“You look tired, I can carry you for a while. What are big brothers for?”
Jill muttered an answer under her breath which must not have been meant for Jack’s ears.
Her brother’s love suffocated her. He was always waving his hand, dismissing her worries and her complaints as trivial matters, not to be bothered about. Life for him was a breeze, and he expected her to flutter along with him just as effortlessly.
They made good progress for the next half hour, Jill silent and brooding, Jack whistling a merry tune.
Very soon they reached the well and Jack immediately dropped his pail into the well to retrieve some much needed refreshment. He sang and smiled at Jill as he pulled on the rope, brought the bucket to her and allowed her the first drink.
“Here you go. Now taste that manna and tell me it isn’t heavenly.”
It tasted like dirt to Jill. She was angry, angrier than she would have been if it were only the day’s events that troubled her. No, it was far deeper than that. The hard life had scarred her, and her quibbles had built up over time into a towering wall of menace and resentment that did not allow for the meek rays of happiness to pervade. The very water she had just drunk seemed to boil within her. She did not deserve this life, no one did.
“Let’s go, little sister. Home is where the heart belongs,” said Jack, drawing on his unending stream of clichéd phrases that so infuriated Jill.
He walked away to the path which led down to their village and just as he turned to check on his sister, he felt a push. Down the side of the mountain he fell, branches, leaves, rocks hurtled past him faster than he could react. Ten meters down and he hit the first branch, scratching his face, he cried out in anguish, but it hardly slowed his fall. Another few meters down the hill and a rock jutting out from the cliff struck his head, his head split open immediately, and Jack lay there, dead.
Jill watched her brother fall to his death with a curious expression on her face. A more observant viewer might even have ventured to say there was a hint of a smile on her face. It was the first time in her life she had broken the monotony. The first time she did not know what would happen next. The first time her life didn’t stretch out before her as a vast desert with nothing but an arid landscape to meet her eyes. She felt freedom for that one day, aged 19, and she fell in love with it instantly. No more would she work at the wretched workshop. No more would she return to her tiny home with the broken bed and the dirty dishes. No more would she have to endure Jack’s false cheeriness, his whistling, his casual dismissal of her woes and his horrendous clichés. She was her own woman now. She was free.
She looked down at Jack one more time, and then, whistling happily a song from her childhood,
stepped over the edge and came tumbling after.