beauty, love, short fiction, women

Sibling Memory

Yard sales were less about vague spiritual urges to lessen your material possessions than getting cash to paper over the cracks in our finances. Gary had lost his job at the trucking company, worked for the state but we had taken a hit, as much due to my having to carry the bills whilst he sat around feeling sorry for himself. I was up there, finding toys which didn’t have too much sentimental value for me. Gary saw it as an affectation he will tolerate when the kids didn’t play with them anymore. They were tangible memories.

Photographs too, which was what I ended up looking through instead.

Mom passed two years ago.I inherited everything and we moved into the house a year afterwards. I like how she decorated, Gary got to play handyman without causing too much damage and there was a big yard for the kids. The yard where I had played.

Alone. I had no siblings, just mom and dad. When I was eight, it was just Mom. Now, it’s Gary, Kim and I.

She kept her albums up here, filed in order of date. There were less in the last few years, me and the kids when we came to see her. Her trips with her friends. She saw no sense in capturing the time alone. There were things no photograph could capture and I looked at the blank pages in the album and wondered what she had been doing.

Memories are tricks of the light inside our heads. I picked up an album from the eighties, a small child with curled hair which bounced on my skull like slinkies when I moved. Grandma Niamh had threatened me with a hair cut on no end of occasions but my dad had pleaded her down to an occasional muttered aside over anything permanent. There was a photo of the three of us, taken at the annual Dennis vacation in Florida, crowded underneath an umbrella, smiling for the camera with the earnest zeal of good, happy people.

No, four of us.

To my right, stood a small girl, a year or two younger than I. She held my hand and stared straight into the camera, her two front teeth missing, showing pink, wet gums and bright, questing eyes.

I did not understand who she was. My mom was a generous parent to a default and every squalling child warranted her attention, with a gnarled tissue to wipe away tears and a soothing, kind way about her. She became my role model for how to be, spilling over with such maternal energy it reached out to all children. It was not impossible for her to see a strange child as a natural addition to an intimate moment.

I flicked through the other pages, candid, over-lit shots of the three of us. The girl did not appear in the extended family shot, which took three days to organise, the small army of cousins and extended relatives who had faded into obsolescence as the years had gone on.

She turned up again in a photograph of me and Mom sat beneath the brimming Christmas tree, in the same nylon nightdress, tearing into an unopened present as I held up the Strawberry Shortcake doll I had pleaded for all year, my grin was one of unalloyed triumph. Gary said I still made the same face, but I took it as a joke even though it stung.

A shudder ran through me, harsh and biting like a cramp as I threw the album down. The impact brought up a small cloud of dust and I rolled back on the balls of my feet, discomforted and disturbed by the photographs.

A smart thing would have been to stop looking, but where was the fun?

The photographs showed my teenage reluctance. I adopted a perfect sneer, or a neutral, guarded look to hide the vicious storm of feeling going underneath me.

She grinned out from each photo, blonde and brilliant, tan skin and even, white teeth. Like a princess and her bridge troll relation, stood next to one another. She looked bright, real and forceful next to me, faded and self-effacing with my family. Gary’s voice drifted up from the landing but I ignored it, flicking through each album and finding her there.

Beneath the cellophane, caught in bright moments of happiness which mocked my memories of events. My childhood was neither tragedy nor triumph, I never dated the captain of the football team but I didn’t end up pregnant to a meth dealer at sixteen. It was ordinary, a little lonely until my friends took over where my parents left off. No gaps in my memories and nothing to repress.

Except this.

My legs were numb from my forced posture, and in the rush to stand up, my head met with the wooden beam above. My vision blurred and I reached out to grab at a pile of boxes to steady myself but they collapsed, sliding in every direction.

Like my mind. A red bloom of pain exploded behind my eyes, the world wavering as though it were slipping out from underneath me. I swallowed and tasted the accumulated dust of years, bitter and harsh against my teeth. I made it to the loft ladder and down, clutching my forehead as Gary stood there, wiping his hands on a dishtowel.

‘Rebecca’s here.’ he said.

I blinked twice, fought the urge to spit the taste away as my thoughts rolled and writhed with pain and confusion.

‘Rebecca?’ I said.

Blackness rode onto the plains of my perceptions and I felt him catch me before I fell.

The ride to the hospital should have been amusing. Gary sat with me, holding my hand as I tried to reassure him I was fine. Dizzy from where I banged my head, but it could have been the heat, I told him. It was how we did things, my being wounded and needing to reassure him over my own needs.

Rebecca stayed with Kim. Gary reassured me it would be fine.

‘Who’s Rebecca?’ I said.

Gary exchanged a pained look with the paramedic before he squeezed my hand.

‘Your sister, honey, come on you’re scaring me here.’ he said.

His voice had risen in pitch, making my heart thump against my ribs as a primal spike of panic arose inside me.

‘I don’t have a sister.’ I said.

Gary turned white, squeezed my hand hard enough to make it hurt, but I pulled away from him on the gurney.

‘Come on, honey, you’re not making sense.’ he said.

The thin, uncertain voice of reason made my fillings tingle as I wrapped my arms around myself.

‘I know, I know but I don’t have a sister, Gary.’ I said.

The paramedic found something in the cupboard, loaded it into a syringe and injected it into my arm. A stinging burst of chill discomfort smoothed out into a slow, steady call towards sleep. It was the only thing which made sense, and I relaxed into it.

She is there when I wake up, sat by the side of my bed. Her hair is long, brushed out until the blonde catches the remains of the afternoon sun, making it shine and gleam like it has a life of its own. When she looked up, she was smiling.

‘Oh you’ve done it now.’ she said.

Her voice caught in the air, wind chimes hastening a change in the weather and I stared at her, fascinated by the resemblance she had to my parents, a lottery of traits assembled to form a face of incandescent beauty. Startling blue eyes, strong bone structure which would age into handsome whilst still wielding flashes of beauty.

‘Who are you?’ I said.

She raised her hands. The palms were devoid of lines, flat and pallid like the underside of some ancient undersea beast.

‘You tell me. Last I remember, we were eight and you told me you were too old to play with me anymore.’ she said.

I turned away, fighting nausea and fear but she stood up.

‘Where’s Gary and Kim?’ I said.

She smiled and lowered her hands.

‘They’re at home. He wanted to bring her here, but I said we should talk.’ she said.

I peered back at her. She spoke in a reasonable, cool voice, as though this were another psychotic episode from her eccentric sister. It’s even tone made me uncertain, breathing in rapid flutters as I struggled to find the words.

‘But I don’t know who you are.’

She cocked her head and whistled through her teeth.

‘Yes you do. I used to be a princess.’ she said.

She reached into her purse, retrieved a diamond and gold crown, delicate in its design and slipped it onto her head.

‘So did you.’ I said.

Princess Kitty. The memories came her soft white furred paws and long blonde hair, the songs we would make up together and how my turgid, crippling adolescence forced her into the realms of the abstract. I wept with horrible relief. If I were losing my mind, I was amongst friends.

‘ I don’t need a sister.’ I said.

She sighed and shook her head.

‘Yet I’m here, aren’t I?’ she said.

She put her hand on top of mine. The sense of the paw pads, soft like jelly beans resting against my hand, and the sight of her elegant, manicured hands made my head thrum with confusion.

‘I don’t want to be crazy.’ I said.

She smiled and leaned forward.

‘Just let go, it’s the denial which hurts.’ she said.

I laid back against the bed and sobbed.

‘But I don’t have a sister.’ I said.

She smiled, her mouth too full with teeth, the needle points resting on her lower lip. A pink, flat tongue protruded as she leaned over me.

‘You do now.’ she said.

She breathed in, a chill, wet burst of activity as she drew out something bright and fierce from within me. I went with it, dissolving into the sweet relief of nothingness.

I blinked twice, saw Gary applying a cold washcloth to my head, eyes brimming with tears.
‘Jesus, you scared me.’ he said.

I tried to sit up and a bolt of pain punched through me. I gasped and Gary jumped, anxious and thrumming with the need for action. I put a hand out to reassure him I was okay.

‘Is Rebecca here?’ I said.

He frowned and shook his head, eyes narrowing with concern as his lips pressed together.

‘Who’s Rebecca?’ he said.

My head ached again, and I sobbed.

For what, whom and why, I could not say.

I took painkillers and laid down. I staggered downstairs, saw Kim at the kitchen table, drawing with crayons across an unfurled roll of wallpaper. I put my hand on her head, kissed the top and breathed her scent in.

The glint of the crown and the white fur, delineated by excess pencil strokes made me shut my eyes as tears came.

I looked outside, saw her stood at the foot of the garden, gamine legs dangling from the swing and waving at me whilst Gary tried to hack at an overgrown bush. I ran to the window, head pounding with confusion and hammering my fists against the windows in panic. Kim glanced up at me.

‘Stop it or mommy will think it’s me.’ she said.

I wrapped my arms around my chest, watched Gary turn and plant a dutiful kiss on her forehead where she sat on the swing. They laughed together with an ease I envied, a moment devoid of resentment as I struggled to breathe, unsure of anything but Kim’s cool, loving gaze in my direction.

‘But I’m your mommy, Kim.’ I said.

She smiled at me with a child’s seriousness making her appear older as she scribbled in rough, bold loops of crayon.

‘No, I wish you were.’ she said.

I stared at the two of them in the garden, my head pounding with unresolved tensions as the real world showed me its teeth and sank them in deep. I wanted to play with every fibre of my being, but Kim passed me a crayon and I took it with a grimace as she told me where to colour.

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