That warm summer day I sat on the scorching curb outside Nana’s house, the sun glazed my freckled shoulders, and my purple popsicle was sopping down my hand and sticking to the Sweet Melon nails you had just painted for me. You were riding your neon blue bicycle in that ruby sundress with the turquoise flowers on it. I remember watching you ride in circles around the cul-de-sac; the sky was an empty blue like the petals of a hydrangea. Your hair was blonde then, a white baby blonde, and it danced behind you like the feathery seeds of a dandelion caught in the wind and flying away. The smell of lavender laundry detergent cast from the fresh drying sheets and draped the summer air. The sun was flowering between the leaves of the thick Sycamore trees that lined the streets. It beamed through the branches and cast a halo of light above your head. I could see the dimple on your left cheek as a smile emitted across your face. I wondered if I would ever be as beautiful as you.
That night I lay on my stomach, my head turned so I could see through the gap beneath the plywood bedroom door that was splintering from the bottom as if to see the screaming. The stale smell of the shag blue carpet grew thick in my nostrils, a musty stench with a slight tang from oily skin. I can still feel it tickling the inside of my ear and itching my skin, leaving pink irritated blotches across my belly, and I can still hear the screaming. The fighting was erratic, my heart would thump quickly with each rising tone of voice, and despite the unease I always found myself listening intently. That night Mom shattered Dad’s favorite Dodger’s coffee mug. You always laid on your back on the bed and stared at the ceiling, even when they were fighting about you.
We spent weekend afternoons dressing up in Mom’s moth ball infested closet where the clothes all smelled stale. We wrapped ourselves in her magenta feather boas and slipped our feet into her gleaming silver flats. My ear lobes throbbed as Nana’s clip on earrings dangled down my neck. We lay on the piles of long black dresses, wide brimmed sun hats, and snow colored gloves. The light cast through the window and warmed our faces, we drifted off into a sweet sleep on the sun stained wood floor.
We grew too old for our bunk beds and too old for the glowing star stickers that scattered our ceiling at night. We grew too old for our sagging swing set in the yard and too old for the pink stuffed animal nets that hung from the walls. I grew too old to not know that you kept bottles in the bottom drawer of your fading sky dresser. And at night I could always hear you crying.
One night I stirred to a mirage of red and blue lights that illuminated our room. I heard our screen door slam shut with a screech and I bolted awake to look at you, but your bed was empty. I rushed to the front room and saw two police cars. I watched for the first time as they un-cuffed you on our front lawn that was still covered in dirty snow. I could see everyone’s breath in the bitter cold sky. I immediately ducked out of the window’s view and sunk to the ground. I grabbed my throat and stretched the skin to let me breathe easier but my pounding heart was unyielding. The throbbing inside my chest dropped to my stomach when I heard the police radio enter our living room. I crawled to the top of the stairs and peered behind the wall. The cold air blew through the front door and sent goosebumps down my skin and under my nightgown with the red satin bow. The officers spoke to Mom and Dad as you screamed, threatened, and thrashed around in front of the drooping stained couch and the box TV that was playing The Simpson’s on mute. Hot tears poured down my cheeks as you called Dad a drunk and threatened suicide. I stared at our mantel behind you with the only three pictures framed in the whole house—Dad carrying Mom to their Getaway Car, Grandpa and his ’74 Chevy, and you and me in our pink plastic sled on a hill full of snow. I loved that sled. I watched them cuff you again until you fell to your knees and melted into a puddle of tired sobs on the burnt orange carpet.
Weeks later I came home from school to find my plastic green translucent pig laying empty on the carpet. It had been stabbed and sawed through to make a larger opening in its belly. Two-hundred dollars of all the tooth fairy visits, the babysitting money, the random penny on the sidewalk, the summers I lifeguarded—all gone. I was shocked and confused. I felt a presence watching me and I turned to see you observing me from the doorway. Your tank top fell short of your belly button ring and your denim skirt didn’t leave much to the imagination. You were wearing that ugly black beaded bracelet your boyfriend gave you and a cigarette dangled between your fingers. When I asked you if you knew what happened you crossed your arms, looked me straight in the eyes and said you had no idea, and that maybe I had misplaced it. Misplaced it? I thought you were joking but the smug look on your face surged me with rage and pure fury. It was the first time you ever lied to my face.
I remember the rusting, metallic blue Civic pulling out of the crumbling driveway as you left for college. I walked out into the middle of the road lined with aging houses and overgrown lawns. You did not turn your head to look back at me. To see me waving goodbye. To see me begging you to take me with you with snot and tears dripping from my chin. When I went back to our room, I saw the closet full of the clothes you hadn’t packed, your messy bed with the sheets you hadn’t brought, your toothbrush still on the yellow sink, but when I pulled open the bottom drawer of your faded sky dresser I saw the bottles were all gone. That night the screaming got louder and I fell asleep reminiscing about how we used to dress up in Mom’s magenta feather boas and fall asleep in the sun. One day when I came home from school Dad had filed for bankruptcy and Mom had filed for divorce.
One Thanksgiving you just showed up after all those years looking like some emaciated prisoner, wearing that ratty Cornflower blue tank top with the beaded flower on it as if it weren’t snowing outside. Your breasts had disappeared and your jeans were falling off your hip bones. Your nails were brittle and dirt ridden. Your teeth were gnawed down and yellowed. You had a new tattoo on your shoulder of a black and white rose that was raw and infected. When I passed you the can of cranberry sauce you ate right out of it with a spoon. This foul smell fumed off of you as you sat there as if nothing had ever happened. I will never forget that smell. A monstrous blend of dried urine, cheap liquor, and sour body odor.
I pressed my ear against our bedroom wall to hear you weeping, your cries sounded the same as they had when we were young. I opened the bathroom door and found you curled up on the emerald tile floor with the dirty grout. Your grey eyes looked up at me and it was like looking at the girl riding her bicycle. They were innocent and fearful, like they were staring back at me from behind bars. When I touched your scabbed knee you flinched. I turned the bath on and I slowly pulled off your ragged tank top and helped you stand up. You held my shoulders for support as I helped undress the rest of your shivering body. I helped you into the tub and filled a cup with hot water and poured it over your shoulders. You rested your forehead on your knees and I poured water over your head to wet your matted hair. I thought about the day you chopped it off and dyed it black. I tucked the hair behind your ear and I saw the bruises. I grazed my fingers over them tenderly taking a moment to figure out how someone gets bruises there. I saw the healed holes down your ear lobe and was reminded of the thrill on the day we pierced them ourselves with an ice cube and a needle after Mom had told us no.
We didn’t speak. We didn’t have to. The wounds on your body spoke enough. I took a cloth and squeezed the hot water onto your shoulders and arms where dirt had crusted to your chapped skin. I washed the grease from your hair with lavender shampoo that smelled like the drying sheets that hung in Nana’s backyard. Your shoulder blades looked like the broken wings of a black bird that cradled the jagged ridge of your spine from your neck down to your tail bone. I caught glimpse of your forearm that you had been hiding and grabbed it to see seven unhealed puncture wounds lining your veins. My heart stopped and dropped to the bottom of my gut the same as it had when I watched you from our window in my nightgown with the red satin bow. I stared at you for answers but you turned your head away toward the grimy shower wall and slowly retracted your arm. I had my answer.
You laid in bed with the towel twisted around your washed hair wearing Dad’s old college sweatshirt that Mom had never gotten rid of. I took your hand and carefully coated each nail with Pleasantly Plum. A fragile smile surfaced and the creases from the dimple on your left cheek emerged. You could no longer deny your pain; you had to face reality and I think that’s what scared you.
I decided to stay with you for a while even though it nearly killed me to be in that house. All the memories tugged at the bottom of my throat and anchored themselves deep inside. The way the house was wilting into the ground. The way the front door reminded me of that crisp fall day when we painted it that cerulean blue and drank cider on the front steps. The way the inside hadn’t seen daylight in years. The walls still flaunted our little fingerprint smudges and all the height lines on the wood paneling with our ages remained--Age 3 Age 7, Age 6 Age 10. The Honey-Comb cereal box was never put away and the star stickers still glowed on our ceiling at night. I could hear the screams peeling off the walls like old whispers, reminding me of all the nights I lay on that vile blue shag carpet listening to the fighting as I tried to fall asleep. It still eerily felt like home.
I will always remember the way you looked at me that day. Your grey eyes were so hollow you could get lost in them, and I know that’s what you were. I wondered if you would ever find yourself. I wanted to help you find her. You were laying on the drooping stained couch and I sat on the burnt orange carpet and you took my hand, a limp, blistered, callused mess of a hand, but I loved the way it felt in mine, like it belonged there.
I’m sorry, Sissy. You whispered as if you were ashamed to even say that much. All the years of hurt and memories flushed inside my chest into a heat that burned in my eyes and my throat. Decades that I had forced into an unconscious place emerged. I watched as the tears pooled into the corners of your cracked dry lips.
I forgave you.
You would never know this but I watched you sleep that night. I studied the scars on the insides of your arms and your collar bones. I wanted to touch them but I was too scared. I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you needed me. I wept for the beautiful girl that rode her bike under the Sycamore trees and a barren blue sky. I woke up in the morning to an empty couch, an empty purse, and an empty wallet.
Julia is an emerging writer that studies Creative Writing and Psychology at the University of Utah. She has dedicated her life to being an advocate for women and those affected by mental illness and addiction. Her work has been previously published in The Canticle and Rag Queen Periodical.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.