"Emma and Alma," said Alma's mother. "Even your names sound similar."
They spent summers in the same park, in the same sandbox. On rainy days, they played games together. When it came time for school, they went to class with the same level of reading. They learned to write their names. They learned to count.
"They'll be best friends forever," said their parents.
The girls started out with average grades. Emma, the one with slightly lower scores, had to work more to keep up. Her performance improved. Encouraged by her success, she worked even harder. She got so good in the first school year that both girls forgot they were equal.
"You've always been the sharp one," said Alma later. They didn't remember a time when things had been different.
As teenagers, they played on the same volleyball team. Alma, as she grew to be tall, enjoyed easy success. Emma remained the shortest in their class. Even with extra training, she couldn't match her friend's level of performance. Working harder let her keep a place on the team. Later, they both remembered being athletic.
"You could spike," Emma recalled.
"But you could dig." Alma nodded. "And set."
After school, both moved out on their own, living in poverty and on charity from their parents. Alma spent more money. She bought her furniture on credit. Emma bought hers at yard sales. Alma got a new car. Emma saved up for a used one. Over time, Alma fell into such debt that she had to move back to her parents' home. Emma built up savings, even though they earned the same money. She decided to travel.
Alma married a local man, a handsome one, who she felt was a prince to save her from her debts. In her travels, Emma met an educated man, not as handsome. She agreed to settle down with him if he would live in her hometown for a while.
"I think you married a bit of a frog," Alma said to her friend when they met again.
"He is, a bit," she admitted. "But he's willing to work to get more princely. And anyway, I'm not a princess."
They lived in the same town for a few years. Alma had her first child. She relied on Emma to help with childcare. Often, the two went out together. Sometimes, they left Alma's toddler with his grandparents and spent their time at parties, at museums, or on dates with their husbands. One night when they were out, they got into an accident.
The accident broke bones in both of Emma's legs. It punctured her left lung. As her lung filled with blood, the ambulance team and then the doctors tried to drain it. When her heart failed from the strain, the surgeon revived her. He repaired her lung and pinned her stray rib into place. The hospital scheduled three other surgeries to repair her legs and hips.
When Emma awoke, she practiced moving. At first, that meant exercising her arms. It was all her nurse would allow. Later, she learned to roll her body. After a week of limited movement, the nurse agree to let her sit up.
"Your friend hasn't even gotten this far yet," said the nurse.
"Alma is here, too?"
"We moved her off of this floor. But you won't be able to see her until one of you can walk."
Emma learned that Alma had suffered a broken hip and a broken leg. She'd endured a surgery similar to Emma's. In fact, the same surgeon who had saved Emma's life had pinned Alma's bones to allow them to knit.
As soon as she could travel down the stairs, Emma went to visit. She found her friend alone. Her prince of a husband was at work, unable to visit that day until he finished his evening shift.
"You're up!" shouted Alma. Her face lit with surprise. But she barely moved.
"You're not!" said Emma. She leaned on her walker. In a moment, she would need to rest. For now, the mixture of exhilaration at her friend's health and frustration with her friend not exercising kept her upright.
"Well, no. It hurts to sit up."
"Of course it does." It had hurt her, too. That's what broken bones did. "Alma, I saw your scans from yesterday. All of your bones are fine enough to move."
"But my joints aren't," her friend complained. "I don't think I can make the same comeback you did."
"You damn well can." She tried not to stomp her foot. It would have sent jolts of pain through her.
"Then why am I not out of bed and you're walking?"
"I put in a lot of work, right from the start. I knew I had to, to get this result."
"But I don't really do that, Emma." Her voice lowered. "I never have."
The shorter woman sighed. She moved her walker to the front of the guest chair. Carefully, with one hand on the armrest, she took a seat.
"I can't leave this room until I see you do work. Move something more than your toes and fingers. I know it hurts. Sit up anyway. Heck, just show me you can roll a little."
"Emma, I'm tired." She moved enough to pull her blanket to her collarbone. "I can roll later."
"Your husband is coming. Don't you think he wants to see you sit up? He needs you." She considered trying another line of reasoning. "What about your little boy?"
"We don't let him visit." At that, Alma blushed.
"You've never liked putting in hard work for a distant payoff. But you're going to have to do it now."
"Right," the taller one laughed. "Because you're willing to put in the work to get the result out of me."
"First, you do step one. Then you do step two. Then keep going." Emma pulled her walker closer to her chair. She tried to stand but had to put out her right hand to the armrest and ease back down. "Alma, I didn't bug you to work harder in school. You were fine by me. And I didn't bug you to work in sports even though I think you could have been a star. You just didn't like it that much. But I can't stand by and watch you not try, not this time. We have less than a year to get our physical strength back. That's what the doctor said."
"That's a long time."
"Now it's only eleven months. You've got to get up. Look, a job like this can seem too big in the beginning. I know. It can make you freeze up in panic. You have to do the little thing that's next. Keep doing the little things."
"And then what?"
"And then, in the long view, you get done. All you need to do to accomplish a big thing is to start. And keep going."