My sister comes home from her first sleepover smeared in makeup, refracted and reflective. She asks me if I think she’s pretty. I take her hand and drag her across, wish I could pack her skull like a suitcase, letting only clean things stack up, whatever she needs to keep her warm. I see that she has started sitting on her hands, ashamed of the bulbous blue tips of her fingers. I want to tell her the universe has been promised to her palms, that those are the fingers that draw bunnies and clouds and corpses, that fed a baby bird sugar water out of an eyedropper, that tied my shoe laces in triple knots for six weeks when I broke both of my arms falling out of the space simulator on a field trip.
“You are lovely.” I clear my throat, squeeze her shoulder. “Absolutely lovely.” She squints as planks of sun creak across the sky, the construction site of summer.
“Lillian Baker says I’m too skinny and I look like an alien.”
Emma. I press her name under my tongue, as if I could keep it safe inside my mouth. She covers her face and cries. I kneel; push her bangs out of her eyes. I do not hold her. I am so afraid she will go stiff or slack in my arms that I tell myself over and over that I am lighter without anything in them.
I lead her to the cramped blue bathroom. Scrunchies, bobby pins, and six different kinds of lip-gloss litter the counter. “What do you see?”
“ A skinny kid with socks up her shirt and bruises down her back.” She bites off a hangnail.
I flip the wrong light switch.
She feels Pangaea surging through loose fists; the whole of human history explained by the way she hides her hands. She rests her head on my shoulder. My eyes start to sting, an advertisement against allergy to self.
” Look at your sparrow shoulders. Your flyaway hair and skin the color of April. Your straight teeth and crooked smile.” I say.
“But all I see are bones and questions.” She brushes an eyelash off her cheek.
“I think that happens to a lot of us. I feel that way when I look in the mirror most of the time. We have to find someone we trust to be our eyes until our own work right. But one thing not working right doesn’t change the things that are!”
She bites her bottom lip. “There are a lot of things about me that aren’t working right.”
“But you are working right.”
I know how to graph exponential functions, have been able to teach myself Latin and Elfish, have learned to accept a single mistake on a spelling test, some blotted ink on an essay, but for all I know how to do, I cannot figure out how to protect her from what only she can see.
She sticks her tongue out at me and hops off the counter, prances to the kitchen and takes a swig of chocolate milk straight out of the carton. I groan.
“Great. Lip Smackers on the lid again.” She jumps on my back, giggling. I whirl around, making sloppy circles until I see double in every direction. My blood type is kaleidoscopic, incompatible with my next of kin. I bend over to let her slide off, smooth her hair. Strands get stuck in my fingers, fall out at my feet.
My sister wins the school wide spelling bee, the most Girl Scout badges, the hardest song for the next piano recital. When I get called to the nurse’s for the second time that week, I brush her bangs back to feel her forehead.
“She got in a fight with three boys. She bit the teacher that pulled her off the biggest one.”
I rub the back of her thumb up and down. Somewhere a while ago I read that a consistent simple motion applied to the same place helps small children fall asleep if it is repeated every night. She flinches. The thin paper over the cot crinkles. I rest my head in my hands, realize that I have not allowed myself to watch her grow up, one more reason why I wasn’t expecting this.
I turn away.
“They started it,” she says pulling the pale blue blanket up to her eyes.
“Do you know why?”
“Because I’m little and they’re not?”
“And why did you finish it?” I push my glasses further up my nose.
“Because I wanted to win.”
“You don’t have to fight to win. The winner is the one who walks away on their own. The lead up doesn’t matter so much.” I rummage in my pocket for a pen, twist the cap on and off.
“What do you know about fighting?” She clears her throat.
“Not as much as most, but more than some. I think I’m gonna be ok.”
“I could so take you.” She punches my arm.
“Yeah right, just this morning you had to get me to help you squeeze the last bit of toothpaste out,” I say.
“Yeah, and you couldn’t do it either.” She sticks her tongue out at me, an exaggerated red, like a sweatshop summer, manufactured overseas and shipped without protective packaging.
“Whatevs, I’ve got brainpower to back me up.” I crack my neck. She cringes.
The nurse rattles a bottle of aspirin, wraps a brown scrunchie around her black hair. Two girls skipping hand in hand and dripping in mud beg the nurse not to call their mother. They must be twins, but one of them is three inches taller. They are wearing matching yellow sundresses and jelly sandals. Crumpled blue Kleenex and brochures on every topic from Sibling Rivalry to Bipolar Disorder cover the cot next to Emma’s. Different colored crayon drawings, mostly of houses, strings of smoke swiveling out of crooked chimneys, hang on the corkboard.
“Emma, has your brother talked any good sense into you yet? “the nurse says.
The nurse blows a bubble with her gum, reaches up and stuffs it back into her mouth.
“You gonna stay out of trouble from now on?”
“I can’t make any promises.” Emma struggles with her jacket, sloppy braids getting stuck in the zipper.
“What about you, boy? You gonna keep her out of trouble?” The nurse pulls out a pink slip to send Emma back to class. I hand her my pen.
“I can’t make any promises.”
I catch my sister smoking the stub of someone else’s cigarette on the playground six blocks from Oakland Elementary. I snatch it from between her fingers; smother it under the sole of my shoe. I do not ask. She does not answer. Her friends edge away, hair let down, sleeves rolled up. They look older than her. I can see the bands of their brand new training bras, thin pink straps that boys will snap through the backs of their blouses. They hold their hands over their faces like church fans, waving away lies of omission, a dismissal, not a greeting.
“We’ll be around, Emma.” They shuffle their shiny black boots. “Holler if you want to hang out some more.”
“You can stay. My brother just wants to know when I’ll be home.”
“Very soon.” I say. “Could you guys give us a minute alone?” They scuffle across the plywood plank that serves as a shortcut from the little kids and big kids playgrounds, stepping over clods of red clay. At a certain age, girls become careful. Still, they do not look at who is leading them before they follow. Being lost is better than being alone.
My voice is shaking but my hands are still. She coughs into her cupped hands, even though I taught her to cover with her elbows years ago.
I wonder what else she has forgotten. I don’t know what to say. I am tired of being the big brother, of keeping our misery immaculate. I want to throw things.
I want to make a mess.
I sit down on a creaking swing, purple paint peeling off the chains, rubbed away in some spots from tons of tiny fingers, smeared with applesauce, Chapstick, and snot. Emma stands over me, silent, denim skirt whipping around her scabby knees, socks sagging around skinny ankles. Mom insists she wear socks at all times to keep from catching colds, but she usually takes them off in the bathroom when she gets to class and puts them back on before getting off the bus.
A few fourth graders are playing freeze tag. The school lets kids whose parents are at work stay in the playground until six o-clock. A girl and a boy fall on top of each other, laughing, and everyone else unfreezes to sing “Jesse and Kaitlyn, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.” The other kids in her class freeze my sister first on purpose when she plays so she won’t get too tired. The younger kids just stare at her, ask her if she’s ever been to the doctor for that cold, if her mom remembers to give her Robitussin before school. A group of girls, the curls coming out of their hair, smacking Double Bubble and clapping their hands to the beat of a Carrie Underwood song no one will remember two months from now, sit criss-cross-applesauce near the grave of the three guinea pigs the kindergartners could not keep alive when they were asked to take them home.
When I look at the skin over her wrist, weak veins from years of IV drips, I am not reminded of what is going to kill her.
When I look at Emma, all smashed china and spider webs, I am reminded of the things that keep a body alive, the tendons and tremors and ticking.
It takes a lot of doing to die.
“I just wanted to see what it will feel like when it happens.” She sits down beside me, rests her head on my knee. I try to stop bouncing it.
“When what happens?” I scratch a mosquito bite on the back of my neck.
“You know what I’m talking about. You know everything.” She picks at a scab on her elbow. “Surgeon General says cigarettes kill people.”
“Not all at once.”
She tucks her heels beneath her body.
“We’ve never talked about this before.”
“Sure we have. Remember when you finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows?” I say.
“That was different. This is real.” She twists the two friendship bracelets around her wrists, lines the fraying knots on the ends up with each other.
“Just because something comes out of someone’s mind, or even stays in it, doesn’t mean it’s not real.” I say.
She puts her hand precariously close to a bulbous pulse, to ribs below the heart, the same place that is closing off in her own chest. I focus on the infinity ring on her thumb. The butterfly sleeves on her blue blouse flit back and forth in the breeze. I inch away. My father taught me a long time ago that if you touch a butterfly, not matter how lightly, tiny invisible feathers will fall off of their wings and they won’t be able to fly as far or as long. Sometimes not at all.
It’s hard to say.
“I’m dying faster than you.” She moves her head off my lap.
“You will be if you start smoking.” I braid a wisp the hairdresser forgot to trim from her bangs. She can never sit still for more than five minutes.
“I will be even if I don’t.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” I say.
She is turning eleven in a week. Her best friends Jonah, Ellie, and I are planning a surprise party, with pizza with every topping but pineapple, which she hates because they are too stringy and get stuck in her teeth. I wonder if I will see her wearing white at the sixth grade dance, black at the eighth grade formal, gawky and static as someone else’s graduation, if we will bury her in her first communion dress, which still fits four years later, or her favorite ballet costume, a glittery green leotard with sequined sheaths for sleeves and a short skirt.
I feel like the first day out of bed from the flu, empty and aching, but afraid to chew and swallow. Unable to digest.
She tugs at the sleeve of my Star Wars shirt, nose raw and running, ruining her passion fruit lip-gloss.
“What are you most afraid of?” she says.
“That the wizarding world will grow tired of our immense stupidity and wage full out magical war on us. What are you most afraid of?”
She furrows her brow.
“That my teeth will all fall out at once and I’ll choke on them. Or that God will really get mad at me for saying “oh Jesus” under my breath when I get mad at Ms. Mahoney. “
“It’s getting cold. Let’s go on home.”
I trail after her, bearing the burden of a social studies textbook and two Swiss rolls.
She is translucent and transcendent, trudging through small swamps.
“Hurry up slow poke” She starts walking backwards.
The worst part if she chooses to become a ghost is that she’s going to be grown up while I’m going to stay the same.
Laura Ingram is a tiny girl with big glasses and bigger ideas. Her poetry and prose have been featured in thirty-seven literary magazines, among them Gravel Magazine, Tallow Eider Quarterly, The Cactus Heart Review, and Forest for the Trees. Laura loves Harry Potter and Harry Styles, and hopes to be a bird when she grows up.