Sissy sits in the garden with a book. She shimmers like a soap bubble in the evening light, so delicate, I’m afraid to breath.
Sissy read all the time. I used to find it boring as hell, but now, what with everything that happened, I want to stay like this forever. Sissy and me and the tail end of a fine summer day. She turns a page. The sun shines through her child-fine fingers, fingers she inherited from our mother.
I must have made a noise, because she looks up from her book, searches me out. She smiles, pleased to see me, but sad. There were times when that look on her face would have made me feel good. We used to fight all the time; it made Mom crazy. “When I’m gone,” Mom used to say, “your sibling will be the only one who knows exactly where you came from. That’s important.”
But Mom wasn’t the one who left.
I should ask Sissy what she’s reading. She always liked it when I did that, though I didn’t do it nearly often enough. I take a step. Pain is a forked flare and I gasp.
“You always forget,” Sissy teases, making me angry.
But she’s not teasing. She’s chiding, and she puts a blade of grass in her book to mark her place and comes to me. Now I can see the tear that opened the seam of her jeans. The skin beneath is mottled blue. Her hands are stained brownish. The sight makes me uneasy. She was usually so pristine. She puts her arm around my waist and tucks her shoulder under mine. There are dark clumps in her fair hair, clotted against her scalp, some as big as marbles.
The skin beneath is mottled blue.
“Have you been playing in the woods, Sis?”
She snorts, and there’s something about this sound coming from her that makes my stomach twist. “Not in ages.”
I glance behind us. The low stone wall along the edge of the yard gleams like teeth. The trees beyond it are thick and black. The ground lifts. Settles. I nearly knock Sissy over.
“I’m not feeling very well,” I say.
I wobble, right foot touching down. “Augh!” What have I done to my leg?
“I need to go inside. Lie down.” Sissy says nothing, but I feel her hand twitch against my side. Pain has tunnelled my vision. “Help me get inside.”
All I can see of Sissy’s face is a pale oval. She grabs my hand. Hers is thin and hard and cold, cold, cold.
“Help me,” I say.
“I’ve been trying to.” But her voice has changed. It’s rougher and deeper than it should be. And her hand. So cold. She needs to get inside. Warm up.
“Let’s get inside.”
The stairs to the deck look impossibly tall. Yellow light shows through darkened glass. My leg throbs in red waves. I lean harder on Sissy; she’s so small and I’m afraid of hurting her.
But she holds me. Her arm clamps onto me firmly, her free hand grasps mine at her shoulder. Her hair falls over her face. I need to see her. I need to… the black trees in the ravine grind against one another.
Don’t turn around.
Sissy’s looking towards the house, towards the figures I can just make out moving within. They’re watery, insubstantial. I don’t know who they are.
She licks her lips. “You know you can’t come in.”
“Don’t be…” I was going to say ‘stupid’, but somehow, suddenly, the light from the house falls on her and I see her, my Sissy, only her dark hair has gone gray and the sweet softness of her face has become planes and angles, mature cheekbones and a confident, jutting chin.
I’m losing my grip.
The first tree wrenched itself out of the ravine and into the yard. Long tendrils of branches reach out. I’ve fallen, except Sissy still has hold of me. Her grip is much stronger now than it was the day I fell.
A second tree joins the first. Their roots gouge the cold earth, their thick branches snap and tear. I gasp. Clutch at Sissy. She grabbed me back, but her hands were small and slick with mud. We’re sliding. Down and down we’re sliding. I’m pulling her with me and the edge is coming fast.
I let go. I let her go.
“You can’t come in, Hughie.”
The trees snap forward, whip me back. Back and back and back. Back to the house on the escarpment. Back to that yard. Back to a brother and sister playing tag on an ice-slick spring day.