inhale. Imagine that you are the eldest daughter of a heavily religious middle-class family living in the suburbs of Ohio. Imagine that I am your younger sister. Imagine that I am lying in bed as I write to you, the lamp throwing reliefs over my face, knowing that you will never get this letter.
exhale. A month ago today, you sat mom and dad down in the living room. It was an hour after church and thirty minutes before mom was supposed to get the pot-roast out of the oven. There was a plate of apples on the coffee table when you began your speech. It was overturned on the floor by the time you were done.
inhale. My therapist showed me a breathing technique yesterday. I spent an hour on her dusty afghan carpet, crouched underneath bladed light, feeling the bone-drum clatter of heartbeat against breastbone. It was a waste of $175 of dad’s co-pay, but at least now I know what to do whenever I see your silhouette. Whenever I find myself in front of the door of your bedroom, hand on the wood sheltering casual silence. Inside, your bed is still unmade. Your closet door is still yawning open. The hanger of the jacket you grabbed on that last night is still broken in two on the carpet.
exhale. At dinner these days, we are three people and a ghost. Mom is always bent over her plate like it holds her heart, and dad is always blank-eyed, his skin salt-seared from his morning somewhere cloudless. After his violent, knee-jerk reaction, it’s almost surprising the way he’s mellowed out. The way he has pressed spine into putty. The bible on his nightstand is untouched, caught perpetually flipped open to Psalm 127:3. It’s almost funny how mom has done the opposite. Fingers folded in prayer, the lines on her palm have been cut into one. If anything, she is more religious now. After mass she is always one of the last supplicants in front of the cross. I can almost imagine that beneath her flowered skirt, there are permanent grooves in her knees. She hasn’t taken our family picture off of the mantle yet, and every time the candlelight sparkles over your face in its little glass frame it is an exercise in nostalgia. An exercise in loss.
inhale. At church today during the sermon, I slid a foot over the burnished wood of our pew and expected to feel your Mary-Janes in the space beside mine. I should be used to the absence by now; if I count that first one, it’s been four weeks since you last sat next to me. Time moves slowly here, like honey, like rosary beads down string, like the gentle clucking of neighborhood mothers, handkerchiefs fluttering in the air like dove wings. When the pastor sees me he is always stilted, wooden words falling hollow like rosary beads every time I open my mouth. As if all it takes to break me is a casual tragedy. As if I am not already broken. With every look they give me I wish I could undo myself. With every sigh I am one step closer to coming undone.
exhale. During Sunday-school, we draw hopscotch squares on bare cement, wreathe them in chalk flowers and the purple dust of the only pink we have. The other girls never say your name around me. When they do talk about what happened, they couple their words with dyke, damned, deserved, syllables stretching longer the less they knew you. The first time it happened, I asked to be sent home. Now when they do it, I sit on the bench and imagine slamming fist to throat until their fish-mouths are scarlet red on pavement. I am almost ready. I am almost coping. I am almost surprised, really, at how easy it is to adapt to tragedy.
inhale. There is a version of this story in which they do not erase you. There is a version of this story in which mom smiled and dad frowned and at the end of the day we still gather round the dinner table. There is a version of this story in which they reconciled faith with the child they raised, and hand in hand we walked into the sunset. In the version we lived, there was no exultation. No sweeping spotlight. Only the fatal kiss of car against skin against asphalt after you ran out onto a dark street without looking both ways, blinded by tears and our parent’s rejection. Only a town of pointed gazes and the whispers swirling around our pew like storm drains after rain. Only a grave in a cemetery two hours away and an empty mantlepiece where our family picture of four used to be.
exhale. On some nights I still wake up at 1 am to the sound of your body hitting the hood of the car. The wet thud as you flipped over glass. The hum of the engine, as the ambulance took you away. The doctor’s voice, as he told us he was so sorry. You will never know this, but the truth is that mom cried while we sat in the ER. The truth is that the dead do not soften under the tears of the living. The truth is that though I am pressing pen to paper as if in confidence, when in reality I will never know if you can forgive me for not running after you. For standing up too little. For choking back the words, even now.
inhale. Imagine, that as I write this, the sky is bleeding into the horizon. It is Monday morning. Imagine, that from my bed, I can see the lawn, where morning light cleaves and morning dew melts into rain. Imagine that you are now buried, somewhere silent and green, too far away for me to visit on my own.
exhale. I miss you, sister. But let me finish writing this letter. For a second, as I lean against the wall between our bedrooms and hear nothing on the other side, I ache. I let your absence envelop me. Let it swallow me whole. I will never not miss you.
Amy Wang is a sophomore from California. In her free time, you can find her reading fanfiction. Her work is published or forthcoming at Twin Pies Literary, Ogma, and X-R-A-Y Lit.