Winter 2013 Issue
It always amazes me how strange even the most familiar things can feel. I step through the front door, my legs thin and weak, and the plush carpet immediately tickles my feet. The sensation surprises me, for I’ve been walking through the halls of this house for as long as I can remember, yet today it feels like everything has changed slightly. The smell—it rings a bell in my head, but it lingers in my nose as if I have never before inhaled the sweet smell of my mother’s incense mixed with a haze of my father’s cookies, always waiting on the oven. And the sight, too—it takes my eyes a moment to adjust, to remember how the staircase twists upward in a distinct swirl. And also how the window directly across from me always lets a pinch too much sunlight shine through, which reflects off of our glass table top in a blinding shimmer.
I hear my mother close the door behind me, and she slips past me off to the left, her office, without saying a word.
Hesitantly, I ascend the stairs. My knees are still shaky and stiff. Realistically I should be getting help with any moderately strenuous movements, but something tells me not to seek help and instead I grip the railing as tightly as I can through my weak wrists.
My room is the third doorway down the hall—that is something I still remember without second thought. I pass the first doorway and don’t allow myself to look. Don’t look, don’t you dare look. She won’t be sitting there. Her computer isn’t playing music; her chair isn’t swaying back and forth. Don’t look into the emptiness of her neat room—how strange it must look actually clean. Don’t.
The door to my room is closed tightly, immediately making me feel like an outsider. The knob sticks a little before it gives, and then the door glides open and I finally step back into my world.
My world covered with dust.
A modest layer of dust covers every surface of my room. The air has a foreign musty smell to it. I cross my room, my feet padding across the dusted carpet. Dirt lines the edges of my vast window, and as I take in the long missed and nearly forgotten view of the beautiful lake that my house overlooks, I trace my finger across the windowsill. My finger comes away grey.
A cloud outside shifts and my room is flooded with scintillating rays of sunlight. The dust twinkles. In the center of my floor is an intricate, colorful shadow of a dragonfly. My heart warms not from the sunlight, but from this shadow. I turn back to my window, reaching up to touch a delicate stained glass dragonfly. I placed it there years ago on the perfect spot on my window so that my room would always be centered on this shadow.
I have always had an affinity for dragonflies. More often than anyone I’ve ever met, I catch dragonflies landing on me left and right. Some people say I attract dragonflies, but I think dragonflies attract me. And others say my relationship with these winged creatures means nothing but good luck, but, especially now, I would like to think otherwise. They’re just there for me—there to remind me of all the meticulous beauty even a tiny creature like them can hold in the mess of the world. A little gentle tap on my arm to remind me to capture the valuable seconds that slip by us so easily, or to say keep staying strong. It’s been a while since I’ve watched them settle on my arms, imagining the sensation of their tiny feet on my skin.
The front door opens and closes, and something sharp pierces my heart as I catch myself wondering whether or not it is my brother or sister who has just entered.
Definitely my brother. I should probably be happy to see him.
As I leave my room, I pass my smudged mirror and fully take in my appearance. My once strong and healthy legs are now skin around bone, my knees knobby. My body is completely enveloped in my dress—the only piece of clothing I fit into now—with hip bones protruding conspicuously from my sides. My arms have thinned out so much that my elbows appear to be poking out at embarrassingly awkward angles. My eyes linger on the reflected image of my patterned sundress, hesitant on finally taking in my face. But this time it is not that I fear the unhealthy transformation I have taken to—I can already feel the hollowness of my cheeks and the bags under my eyes—it is the fear of letting myself see that face which always, painstakingly, resembled my older sister. I wipe dry tears from my cheeks and look up.
The bags and the cheekbones—I have prepared myself enough for that. But now that I have thinned out, I look even more like the skinny, elegant girl that my sister was. She’d always been the prettier sister. It was like all of our features matched; yet hers were noticeably more delicate. Like the chestnut brown hair—both ours, but mine is frizzy and knotted while hers would shimmer down her back in silky waves. My freckles messily scatter my face; hers almost inconspicuously covered her nose, complementing her sharp and stunning features. But the severity of my condition has made me take after her so startlingly well; my once fuller face now resembles her defined jaw and high cheekbones. What is left of me is just a reminder of her.
My sister and I never had any sort of an intimate relationship. While my jealousy of her utter perfection usually clouded any interaction we had, the distance between us was enforced by the gap in our ages. With her having twenty-seven years on my sixteen, we neither had anything relatable to discuss nor any somewhat frequent physical interactions. And as she developed into a graceful and talented dancer, I tried increasingly harder to stray from her footsteps, cumbered by the pressure of her uniqueness and perfection.
Much to my parents’ dismay, I refused to dance and progressively let school slip through my unintelligent fingers as the years passed. Instead I turned to sports. I picked up every sport I was able to—lacrosse, basketball, soccer—and let them take over my life. The opposite of athletes, my parents relentlessly attempted to pull me towards literature and the arts. Not only were these subjects of interest for my sister, but for my brother too. He is twenty. My relationship with him is marginally better than that with my sister, I suppose, and he has gained the other half of my parents’ favor by excelling in school and swiftly picking up music in their approving eyes. For a while, I was smothered by my parents’ efforts to bring me back to their comfort zone. They challenged me with comments like, “Don’t you see how well Charlie plays his guitar?” and, “Alexandra is an outstanding dancer, Lily,” or “Alexandra and Charlie are studying so hard.” Every single one of these comments would be followed by,“You should try it some time.”
I let their tries pass through me, and eventually they gave up. They reluctantly accepted my defiance, routinely and silently driving me from game to practice to game and grasping any chance they had to have my indifferent siblings drive me instead.
Which brought us to the car crash in the first place.
I turn. My brother—tall and full yet with minimal muscle on him—is standing awkwardly at my doorway. His lightning blue eyes are wide and nervous as they hold my gaze. His hands hang at his sides with palms facing me.
“Hi, Charlie.” I choke on the sob in my throat.
We stand facing each other for a few more long seconds before my heart skips and my feet wake up and I’m suddenly crossing the room into his hesitant arms. The hug feels unnatural. It crosses my mind that embraces like these are incredible rarities that would seem almost foreign, even if I hadn’t been absent for the past three months.
Three months ago was the biggest tournament my basketball team had made it to. With it being two hours away, I had to wake up at an unimaginable hour in order to make it there on time. I awoke early that Saturday morning to pounding sheets of rain against every inch of our rooftop. My parents brushed me off in their early morning slumber, volunteering Alexandra to drive me who, with nothing but gold in her perfect heart, accepted.
I knew the moment we slipped into the car that driving would be a struggle. The rain restricted identification of anything more than a few yards in front of our car, but Alexandra seemed to sense my eagerness to play. And she began to drive through the storm.
Even if we would have been able to hear each other over the splatter of rain to metal, not a word was spoken. The silence stretched between us, Alexandra’s knuckles turning white as she anxiously gripped the wheel. After the first forty-five minutes of tension passed, I found myself wondering why it was like this. Why I was so conceitedly making my sister fight through these dangerous roads, why she seemed like a subdued stranger instead of the loving sister that she was to my brother. Why I was the one who separated us—the roadblock to the genuine affection that the rest of my family so gratefully shared. I let a single sob escape.
“You okay?” She stole a quick glance towards me.
One quick glance. That was all it took.
That was all it took for her to lose track of the sharp approaching turn in the road. To not notice the truck hydroplaning toward us with such intense velocity that when I watched it finally break through the surrounding curtains of rain all I could muster out of my petrified body was to blink.
The last thing I remember before blackness was her eyes. Wide and panic stricken, with that deep blue color that we inherited so identically. What did her eyes hold—fear? Worry? Blame?—was the last thing that crossed my mind before my head collided with the window that plunged me into darkness for the next three months.
I was undeservedly fortunate. The only damage I received was from the motion of the collision. But the truck slammed into the driver’s side of the car and didn’t stop until the car was pushed straight into the other side of the intersection.
The last words that Alexandra will ever chant in her melodic voice. Her blinding beauty, her outstanding talent, her mesmerizingly bright mind, her kind heart that beamed so bright—all sucked up into the black hole of the world that escapes everyone’s mind so smoothly. And the only thing to blame—the only reason for the universe to have clicked in this devastating way—is me.
Charlie gently releases me and I avoid meeting his eyes again. Instead, I focus on the vague stain on the carpet in the middle of the hallway. That single stain has been shouting at me for years, ever since one morning when I so clumsily spilled every last drop of my parents’ paint set.
“How are you?”
The question seems wildly out of place, although it warms me that he asks it. In any other family all would be graciously rejoicing. Kisses would be exchanged; hugs would be distributed so eagerly that arms and chests would be tired. And perhaps the siblings would sit down, words exploding over one another as they carried out their untold duty of catching the other back up to reality.
His dark curls have fallen over his eyes, and I wonder if he’s gotten a haircut since I’ve been gone.
He nods. My heart twists as I realize he has nothing more to say. And neither do I. Did he miss me? Has our relationship ever been heartfelt enough to express such obviously simple sentiments?
My brother stiffly runs a hand through his thick jumble of curls. I step away to escape his concerned gaze, in attempt to escape the reality of my life which before now seemed so painfully ordinary that I always accepted it without reconsideration.
It scares me how weak every one of my joints is as I descend the stairs. With each step my ankles wobble, my knees threaten to buckle. I stumble past my mother’s office, and my father barely glances up from the kitchen table where his newspaper is sprawled open as my feet patter past him on the cool tile. The only escape I can think of is out there. By the lake—it always happens there.
The soles of my feet are comforted by the grass. When they hit the ground, I instinctively break into a flailing run. The sensation of finally stretching my stiff limbs and letting the wind wisp through my stringy hair momentarily has me rapt in a breakaway from the reality that is weighing down my decrepit body.
I make my way toward the lake, where my claimed oak tree rises boldly from the fresh, green grass. The sun shines off of the water and I shield my throbbing eyes until I reach the tree’s cooling and welcoming shade. Among the beautiful healthy greenery, visible is a single patch of dirt by the base of the tree trunk. The gnarled roots twist across the lawn, claiming as much land as they can, and my patch of dirt is right where it has always been—between two curved roots that loop around each other to form the perfect perch. Finally breathing in the fresh scent of the lake, I slide down onto the packed dirt and relax against smooth, thick bark.
Just close your eyes.
I recall once when Alexandra found me here. Situated just on the other side of the trunk and facing the opaque water, my position is always hidden from anyone’s gaze from my house. More often than once, I have drifted into a peaceful slumber here, and one time it ran far too late into the day. Dinner was steaming on the table and Alexandra, being the saint that she is, ventured out in search of me.
The sun was drooping in the darkening sky, and the luring smell of my parents’ cooking was beginning to waft along the lawn and into the fresh air about the lake. I can’t say how long Alexandra had been searching, and I hadn’t asked after, but when she did find me she didn’t hide her exasperation.
That night was no doubt the closest we’ve ever been to truly acting like sisters. For her exasperation soon turned to awe as she took in the beauty of our home, which I had been rather selfishly keeping to myself. Although, I admit, I was initially frustrated that someone else was intruding on my serenity, I ended up appreciating the rest of the evening. Alexandra stood above me for a minute while I blinked away my evening drowsiness, and as I began to get up she sat herself right down next to me with her eyes still trained on the water.
The water was more fascinating than I had expected when I finally mimicked her stare. Soft, silent ripples across the silvering surface gave the impression of graceful waves of liquid mercury, and the sinking sun cast a hue of oranges and purples across the sky that dripped into the flowing liquid before us.
“So this is where you hide out every day?” Alexandra asked.
First I nodded, and then answered out loud when I realized she wasn’t watching me.
“Good call. This is amazing.”
I had no response, but she wasn’t expecting one. We sat together in tranquility, for once not plagued by the awkwardness of our selected silence but instead treasuring each other’s presence. Before too long our mother’s agitated call signaled for us to break away from our entranced gazes and head inside to dinner, but the moment lasted long enough for me to be fully grateful that it happened at all. A few times after that night I noticed her standing out there, simply captivated by the heavenliness that now just the two of us shared. One night a few weeks later, I listened through my closed bedroom door as she and my mom got into a heated argument over Alexandra’s rapidly flourishing dancing career. Too much dance here, not enough school there. It ended with the slam of the back screen door, and as I scrambled to the window, I caught a final glimpse of her silky hair before she disappeared behind my—or rather our—tree.
And now she’s gone. All I had in my short lifetime with her was a quick moment like that to recognize what a wonderful person she truly was. To feel briefly connected to her, to actually enjoy her as my sister. And—
My eyes flicker open. It is a small enough sensation that it could be nothing, but my mind has been trained long enough to recognize the feeling. A slight tingle on my arm; that’s all it is.
I glance down, and sure enough it’s what I have been waiting for: an elegant dragonfly has landed on my forearm, its meticulously designed wings resting and its metallic blue and green body glinting in the light. I slowly move my arm to hold the little creature in front of my eyes, and it holds on as I move.
“Hey, little guy,” I murmur, and I find that I am completely choked in tears.
It flutters its wings in response, but stays on my skin.
That’s when I realize that Alexandra will always be with me, here in our makeshift escape. No matter how separated we appeared to be, our passion for this mesmerizing outlet connected us stronger than I would have realized before. My big sister. It’s the small things, I realize, that we share. She’s right here in the wind as it hisses through the leaves, in the colors of the sky that bleed into each other across the surface of the water.
I look back down at the dragonfly.
“Thank you,” I whisper.
And at that, it picks up its wings again and after a few quick flicks the dragonfly is gone across the glistening lake.