"Do I really have to babysit her?" I whine, dropping my coffee mug into the dishwasher, "She's a grown woman."
"Come on, honey, make an effort," my mom pleads in a hushed tone. So Sara won't hear.
"Isn't twenty-four hour surveillance a little overkill? I mean, she barely even moves, much less tries anything violent. Anyway, what would a dead person want to commit suicide for?"
Now there are strange rubbing sounds on the other end of the phone as my mother works to pull on a shirt or shoes. "Please don't joke about that. We've discussed this, and I'm not about to make the mistake of assuming anything. Dad and I need to run some errands and Mary can't help out today. And I know you're not busy, you already said so."
I twist the edge of my shirt and look over my admittedly empty apartment. My grey cat, Minty, winks at me lazily from my padded white wicker chair. "I know. I'm sorry. But it's still just so... weird. How am I supposed to be okay with her acting like that?"
"Amber," she sighs, making the phone explode with an unintentional blast of noise. "Don't act like she's choosing to feel like this. She can't help it. Anyway, we're all doing our best to..." She pauses, lowers her volume again, "to get through this and back to normal. The least you could do is help out some."
I have nothing to say to that. Mom says she'll be over in half an hour. I mumble something in response and hang up the phone. Slumping into my ugly green armchair, I close my eyes.
The day of the car crash, Dad called before I'd even woken up, asking if I could get off work for a few days because there'd been an accident. For hours we'd waited, with the bile they manage to pass off as coffee growing cold in countless styrofoam cups. My dad broke down for the first time in my life, shattering the regal image of him that I'd always clung dearly to. His working-man's hands covered his eyes as he told me how he didn't know what he'd do without either one of his girls, and I had nothing but silence to offer in response.
Eventually, the doctor broke it to us that Sara seemed to have developed symptoms of a rare condition, and yes, in addition to her bipolar tendencies. He'd thrown around some doctor talk about nihilistic constructions, handing us a label right away. Cotard, that damned French psychologist whose syndrome had felt so foreign at first, but which now was painfully familiar. We stood around her hospital room trying to smile while Sara watched snow fall outside and whispered things like, "I didn't make it through the crash, but thanks for seeing me off."
Meds didn't have any positive effect and electroshock therapy had fried my uncle's brains so Mom was terrified of it. With no other option, our parents moved her to Texas, to live with them. "The sunshine will do her some good," said Mom, with strained optimism, "It's all this snow and cold bringing her down!" Once home, they visited every doctor they could get an appointment with and tried countless experimental treatments, none of which did a thing for my sister.
I force myself upright and meander into the kitchen to mentally prepare for Sara's arrival. When a knock sounds at the door thirty minutes and a second cup of coffee later, I'm still not ready. But I leave my empty mug in the sink and open the door anyway. Mom bursts through the door in a flurry of noise and movement, filling my apartment's tiny entrance with temporary chaos. She's throwing around details and more details, what to do if this or that happens, things I should and shouldn't worry about, all of which I've heard before. Out of the corner of my eye, I see my dad's hulking figure guide Sara in by the elbow. He comes back and we hug briefly. "You doin' okay, Amber?"
"Yeah, Dad. You?"
He forces a smile which his eyes don't participate in. "Gettin' there," he sighs. Then Mom is rushing him out the door and I close it behind them.
The air between us, now pregnant with silence, feels ready to burst. I turn and look at Sara, sitting hunched over on the padded footstool in front of my green armchair. Her hands are folded between her knees and she is staring at the floor.
"You can sit on the chair, you know," I tell her, as I tell her every time.
She doesn't look up. She's only twenty three, but the past few months have left her looking much older, with her unkempt, prematurely graying hair, her pale peppery skin, her clothes that hang loosely off her emaciated body.
I sigh, leaning against the wall of the entrance way. "Can I get you anything?"
She doesn't look up.
"You're skin and bones. When was the last time you ate?"
"Mom made a fuss," she says in her monotone voice, "she was getting ready to cry, so I ate some toast." She spat every mumbled word out like it tasted bitter.
"When was that?"
"Dinner last night."
"You're not starving?"
She shakes her head. "I'm not anything."
I roll my eyes and stalk into the kitchen. "I'll make you a sandwich."
Five full minutes of silence follow. When I reenter the living room, she hasn't moved. I set the sandwich on the coffee table near her and settle into the white wicker chair to eat my own sandwich. Her back is bent forward and she stares into space blankly.
"Mom and Dad holding up okay?" I ask.
She shrugs. "Well enough."
I turn on the TV and settle on some mundane show about how they make jet engines. Sara won't even look at the TV. An hour later, she's still gazing off at nothing.
With a sigh that's louder than I intend, I stand up and take her untouched sandwich back into the kitchen. When I come back to the living room, I plop back down and try to ignore my sister.
To my surprise, I hear her scratchy, quiet voice ask, "What about you?"
I look over at her. She's not quite making eye contact with me, but at least she's looking at an area that's closer to my face. I turn back to the television. "What about me?"
"Are you holding up okay?"
My eyes stay trained on the stupid show, though I'm not hearing a word of it. My fingernail scratches along the ridges of the wicker chair, pushing over the bumps slowly. "What do you mean?"
"You just seem... upset."
I change the channel. Reruns of Family Feud. Better than jet engines.
"Remember how we used to watch this after school sometimes?" I asked.
"At least, on the days you didn't go straight to your room. Remember how you used to throw those crazy tantrums?" I look over to see if the words have an effect. At one time, she might have flown off the handle, telling me I was a jerk, or worse. That, or she would have laughed, agreed, and made a joke about it.
"Mm," she says. She tucks her hair behind her ear and looks at the ground.
I glance at the clock, then turn back to the TV.
After a while, Minty strolls into the room like he owns the place, blinking slowly at us. "Oh, crap," I mumble. Sara's head slowly turns to look at the grey cat. "I'm sorry, I forgot to lock him up."
Sara's body tightens and she seems to retract further into herself. "It's okay, just don't let it... touch me or anything..."
I click my tongue, but he ignores me. Instead, he steps straight over to Sara and jumps on her lap. Sara stands suddenly in horror. As she does so, Minty falls onto the carpet, clawing awkwardly for something solid all the way down. With a hiss, the cat makes his wounded retreat into the kitchen, where I trap him and then lock him in my bathroom.
"I'm sorry," I say on my return to the living room. Sara is standing with her arms held stiffly away from her body and her face tight.
"Can I borrow some new clothes?"
I suppress a laugh. "Sara, for the last time, if you were allergic to cats anymore, you'd probably be sneezing as soon as you walked into my apartment. The whole place is covered in cat hair. You haven't been allergic since you were a kid."
But she looks miserable and she won't sit down, so I grab her some clean pajama pants and a tank top. She looks at the shirt. "Do you have a jacket?"
"Why? Are you cold? I can turn down the air, it's just hot as hell out there today."
"I just... could I have a jacket?"
When she comes back out of the bedroom, the drawstrings on the pajamas are cinched so tight that the rest of it looks like an umbrella.
"Sorry," she murmurs, moving to reclaim her spot on the footstool, "cats just... I don't like cats."
"I know." I'm about to settle back into the game show again, but I glance over at Sara for a second. She's scratching her wrist and, as I watch, I notice a red line peeking out from under the cloth.
"Oh no, did Minty scratch you? I'll get you a bandage, hold on."
Sara presses her forearms against her lap. "No, thank you." She looks at the television intently.
"I thought I saw a scratch." I stand, and I can see her tensing up again. "Are you sure he didn't nick you? Let me see." I move to where she's sitting and pull at her arm. For just a second, she resists, holding her arm down, but then she goes limp and allows me to lift it.
I pull back the jacket sleeve to reveal not one, but six horizontal slashes lined up neatly in a row along her forearm. The bright red, barely scabbed slits stand out harshly on her white skin and I feel suddenly nauseous. I can only assume her other arm is about the same. I stare at her, but she is gazing without expression somewhere around my belly button.
"Did you do this to yourself?"
She does not speak.
"Sara, do Mom and Dad know that you've done this?"
She does not speak.
I bend so that I'm at eye level with her, but she looks just to the side of my head. "Sara."
Up close, I notice that her once-blue eyes are now closer to a dull grey. The skin around them has shrunken so she looks skeletal. Her gaze slides to the ground beside me. "I know you don't understand."
"You can't hurt yourself like this, Sara."
"No it's not."
"Yes, it is."
As I stand there, looking at her dead eyes and holding her limp, mutilated arm, and listening to her pathetic, flat voice, I feel all the outrage and hatred I've been accumulating since, and even before, the accident come welling up inside of me.
"No, Sara," I say, dropping her hand. It lands with a soft thump on her thigh. "It's not okay. Why don't you just stop doing this? Snap out of it, for Christ's sake." My words are getting harder and meaner as I speak, and for the first time in years, I allow them to. "I'm so sick of this. I'm sick of you. Why can't you just be normal? You refuse to be! You're stubborn and you're self centered. I know you've got Mom and Dad and those doctors at your feet. But I'm done."
Now I'm pacing in front of her, watching the crown of her bowed head and hating everything about her. "You've got a pretty good deal," I tell her, "I see that now. You get all the pity and love that you always wanted out of Mom and Dad, and they take absolute care of you. Just skip a few meals here and there, no problem, right? No work, no bills, and all the attention you could ever need. Why don't you just do us both a favor and save it. I bet you even did those stupid little scratches so that I would pity you too, didn't you? I bet you did, and now you're acting all martyred because, oops, you let it slip, poor you. Well, news flash: I couldn't care less about you."
She has been shaking her head slowly as I spoke. "That's not true," I just barely hear her murmur. She crosses her arms tight against her stomach and shrinks into herself.
I want to stop, but now I'm crying a little and that just makes me madder. I ball up my fists and now I'm yelling. "You think you're dead? You think none of this matters? You think you're the only person in the world? What about Mom? What about Dad? What about me? You're so selfish! You're not dead, you're just pathetic."
I watch her for even a hint of a response, but her head stays down.
"Well?" I scream at her, "Say something!" When she doesn't, I shove her shoulder. "C'mon, Sara." I push her again, this time rocking her sideways a little. "Say something!" I push her one more time, and she tips and allows herself to fall to the floor with a carpeted thump. Once down, she just crumples there like a bullied child.
I look down at her, disgust and frustration roiling in my stomach. I wish I could hurt her. I want to hit her, kick her, bite her, anything to make her wake up and be my sister again. Anything besides doing nothing.
But I make myself breathe instead. It takes a few moments, but soon the anger is draining out of me and all that's left is me and my sister, alone in my apartment.
Sara holds her hands clenched against her chest and her eyes are closed. Her face is screwed up in resigned surrender. I bend and gently touch her arm. She flinches, then allows me to pull her to her feet. I numbly help her sit in my green armchair and I sit back in my wicker chair and we watch Family Feud.
I can't focus on whoever they have as the show's new host. Sara's presence is heavy in my mind. I try to watch her out of the corner of my eye, but she appears to be sitting absolutely perfectly still. I should say something, but I can't bring myself to speak. The hatred sits in the pit of my stomach like a cherry stone.
I'm starting to wonder how long it will take the regret and guilt to rise up in me like vomit, when Sara gets up from the armchair and slowly steps toward the balcony of my second floor apartment.
"Sara?" I push myself out of the wicker chair and catch up just as she is opening the sliding door.
She looks at me from under her ragged hair. I haven't seen her smile in so long that it seems out of place, copy-pasted where it doesn't belong. It isn't the playful, teasing grin she used to have; this smile is hollow, indecipherable. We stand there for a moment as dry heat seeps into my apartment, then Sara steps forward.
She places her fingertips on the railing and stands there, looking down. I can vaguely picture her vaulting over the railing, but from this height she would only break a bone or two. I might have found that concept funny under other circumstances.
I close the door and step forward to join her. Together, we watch the brown patch of grass separating my apartment complex from the neighboring one. Emerging from one of the ground-level apartments, a tiny dog drags an old, fat man slowly along on a string.
"When Mom and Dad brought me here," she says in a voice like sandpaper, "I thought they'd escorted me to Hell."
I don't know how to react until I hear her faint chuckle, then I laugh a little bit. "I can see why you might think that," I told her. We both quietly watch the fluffy white dog bouncing along the balding grass.
"I'm sorry," I say. I want to tell her I didn't mean any of what I said, but the words don't come.
Thankfully, she responds with an, "I know," before I can worry much about it. For a long time, I think maybe that's all she has to say. I can't think of anything to say either, so we both gaze down at the tiny dog snuffling along while the fat man stares at his glowing phone. The dog begins to circle and squat just as Sara begins to talk again.
"I wish I knew what to do. You tell me to just… stop it. To quit being like this." She shakes her head and grips the balcony. "How am I supposed to do that? If I could just believe it wasn't true, I would have already. I don't want to be like this anymore."
After yelling, my body feels heavy, tired. I want to be mad, because I don't know how else to feel. But I can't muster it, and all I can manage is, "I really don't know."
She sighs and runs her hands through her hair. It frizzes out under her hands and creates a ball of fuzz on the crown of her head where her hands remain for a while. With her hair back, I can see the front edge of the pale purple scar she got from the accident peeking out onto her forehead. She leans her elbows on the balcony, bowing her head and staring at her feet.
"Nobody believes me. The doctors all say that I'm having delusions. Like it's a phase I'm going through. Like I can just be convinced otherwise with the right meds or therapy technique."
"Or the right voltage," I volunteer as I watch the fat man drag the dog back into his apartment.
An idea hits me. Before I know for sure whether or not I should say it out loud, I blurt it out. "Hey, I was thinking. You're dead, right?"
She doesn't look at me. Maybe she thinks I'm teasing her.
"Well... I guess the thing is, so what? Is anything all that different, really? I mean, you can remember before the crash, right?" She nods, uncertain. "Mom and Dad and me and everything… we were all the same as we are now, right?"
She shrugs. "So?"
"Well, what's the difference? Before versus after, I mean. If you died, it sure didn't seem to change anything much. I mean, at least you didn't go to Hell, right?"
There is a silence before she speaks. "But I'm empty inside. My soul is gone. I'm hollow."
"Well, maybe… maybe that's something you have to learn to work with," I say, my voice soft and hopefully comforting, "Or maybe you can even find a way to bring it back. Anything but this, right? If you're dead, you'll probably be here for a while. And if you try, there's a lot to be happy about around here. Food and wine and music… and sex."
I hear a snuffle of laughter from her, but when she speaks, her voice is still flat. "None of that feels the same. I don't enjoy food, it all tastes like sand. And music is just… horrible noise."
This sets me back for a moment. "I didn't know that."
I expect her to go into detail, but she continues to look at her feet in that same awkward hunched posture.
"Well, I guess I get that. But maybe if you work toward it, it could get better. Maybe you just need to fight back."
She doesn't say anything for a while. She removes her fingers from her hair, which stays stuck in a bumpy, fuzzy mass. She folds her arms on the balcony rail and stares out at the neighboring apartment complex and I can see her mind working. Finally, she says, "That's a lot easier said than done."
"I know that."
"But… I appreciate it." She looks over at me. Her slate blue eyes seem less foggy than I've seen in a while, though it's hard to tell if that's in my mind or not. I realize this is the first proper eye contact we have had since the Christmas before this all happened. Now that she is looking at me, I can see how tired she is. Tired, but of what it's hard to tell. I want to hug her, but somehow it doesn't feel right.
Instead, I settle for touching her elbow. She doesn't quite smile, but her eyes crinkle at the edges like she used to do when she was happy. Which is good enough for now.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Amanda Hamilton. All rights reserved.