The day my sister disappeared, the uncomfortable red hue of the evening sky and the vibrancy of the grass complemented each other. The oddity of the scene cast an uneasy shadow on the house. My mom kept glancing out the chipped oak window in our kitchen, which my dad had promised to fix since the beginning of summer when the days seemed to stretch on infinitely and night was scarce. Now, time seemed to be correcting itself and the sun no longer ruled the day like it had. However, my mom’s periodic glances drew my attention away from the raggedy, brown composition notebook I had been writing in while waiting for my sister to come back. He always walked her to the backdoor so there would be as little interaction as possible with our parents. I sat on the carpet, back pressed against the screen door.
“When’s she coming home?” I said to my mother after I heard her clear her throat for the fifth time in the span of one commercial break.
“Your father gave her a midnight curfew,” my mom responded despondently as she chopped onions for the sizzling iron pot on the gas stove. Oddly enough, the subtle tears that rolled down her cheeks as she absentmindedly lifted and lowered her smooth tan hand matched well with the mood of the evening. I just hadn’t known why yet. It was instinctual, I suppose. Some sixth sister sense. The invisible string between us pulling at me. A warning.
My sister had met Ralph at the start of summer at the local grocery store in town– the sign’s letters could never seem to be illuminated at once and newcomers had difficulty distinguishing between it and any other storefront in the cream-colored strip mall. She was a cashier. Her denim-blue apron, khaki pants, white-collared polo, and misspelled name tag were armor against the drudgery of a minimum-wage summer job. She would leave our house well before the sun had fully crept above the horizon and the mockingbirds’ songs had filled the moist morning air, which hung heavy like a wet blanket. She would only ever work the opening shifts, saying that this way the afternoons were always left open for the two of us. At least that was the ritual before Ralph.
I would always wake to her fumbling around the room in the dark, with only the subtle glow from the vanishing moon coming through our thin yellow curtains, casting oddly colored shapes onto her. She was perpetually late– always quieting the sound of her alarm one too many times. I swear if it hadn’t been for the fact that she could charm anyone with those soft eyes, which were the color of the Mississippi after a rainstorm, she would not have lasted more than a week.
But she had met Ralph. Our parents were adamant after catching them in the hammock behind the house that she break up with him and focus on her future. The future that should not involve Ralph. She hadn’t listened, though. It was one of those summer loves. Not her first, though she had hinted that she intended for him to be her last. It was all-consuming and world-ending. At least that’s what she’d said for the past three months each time I asked what it was about him that made everything else worth it.
“Remember when you were six and almost drowned in Lincoln Creek?”
“Yea,” I had answered, confused.
“Well,” she began. “That feeling you had during that moment.”
“You mean not being able to breathe,” I snorted.
“No,” she replied. “After that. The feeling of relief when I scooped you out of the water. That deep inhale. That’s how I feel when I’m with him.”
She had whispered all of this before shimming under the slightly-raised garage door and out into the night. I was the accessory to her crimes of sneaking out. I had remained there for a while, unable to do anything but blink. She had a way of speaking whole sermons in short phrases. Her words stung, but she was my sister. I let the garage down, making sure nothing was disturbed.
She was freshly eighteen and bound in the fall for the community college just across the highway. That was why she got a job scanning produce and coupons all day; she needed to pay for her escape plan and Ralph had become her new accomplice.
The quiet had been the first sign that something was off. A long-time grievance of mine was that she could never not slam a door. The creak of drawers and the tumbling of plastic hangers in our closet infiltrated my dreams. The steady stream of water spraying the porcelain tub and the shriek of the rusty shower curtain rods alerted me to her presence. I knew these sounds as the soundtrack of my sister. Her very own unique music that drifted through each doorway in the house and out the screened patio. I didn’t mind the noise some nights; it was reassuring. A constant reminder that we were tethered together, somehow, despite the incursion of Ralph.
However, this night was weird. The silence screamed at me, waking me up abruptly. It took my eyes a few moments to adjust to our small, shared space. It was weird how foreign everything looked when it was doused in the color of night. Her full-sized mattress laid unslept in on the floor. She and Ralph had sold her bed frame to a tired-looking mom with three kids– much to our parents’ dismay–for extra cash she claimed she needed for school. Her multi-colored quilt lay discarded in the same spot since that morning.
Confused and a bit worried, I glanced at the armoire that lived beside the door.
I slowly got up and moved to her side of the room, making sure I didn’t disturb any of the miscellaneous things she had thrown about. She had left early for work and only briefly came in that afternoon to shower, get dressed, and leave once again to go see Ralph.
She had shouted to me from inside the shower and asked if I had seen her tan duffel bag.
“Why would I have it?” I replied, in a normal register. I heard the shower stop.
“Because you take my shit,” she said. “And I haven’t seen it in like a week.”
The moist air seeped from the bathroom as she barged in with a gray t-shirt on her head and white, shaggy towel around her chest.
I sat, cross-legged, eyes stuck to my book. I could feel her staring at me, the tether between us tightening. It pulled my head up slightly, just enough to see that she looked frazzled.
“How do you expect to find anything when your side of the room looks like that,” I said, annoyed that the steam was making my book page damp. “Crack a window.”
She ignored the request, instead dropping down on her knees to rummage through her stuff.
“Why do you need it anyway?” I asked.
“We’re going out.” She was going through the mound of clothes that could function as another seating option at this point.
“Out where?” It was unlike her to make me ask her all these questions. She usually had no problem volunteering all the mushy details of her plans.
She hesitated slightly. If we were not who we were, I would have missed it. The imperceptible jerk of her left hand and the twitch that momentarily flowed through her body. She met my eyes and then looked away again, busying herself once more.
“Just out,” she said finally. Her hands clasped the woven straps of the missing duffel, and she yanked it toward herself. Her smile was one of relief. She quickly busied herself with throwing things into the bag: a few t-shirts, some shorts, toiletries, her wallet.
“Mom’s letting you spend the night?”
“No,” she said, pulling her towel off and standing in front of the closet naked. She pulled out a black crop top and her favorite pair of overalls, a hand-me-down from Mom.
“We’re just going out into the country, a county over, to watch the stars. The bag is for if I feel like changing at his parents’ house or something after dinner. Stop being nosy.”
Indignant, I turned back around and reopened my book. She walked over to the window, grabbed the stone that was now smooth on top from years of use, and propped the window open.
“Don’t wait up,” she said. She walked over and squeezed my arm, a ritual we only did when we wanted the other to know that we were there. And then she was gone.
My parents first thought was that Ralph had done something to her. They had never liked his laid-back, unbothered personality. He always just seemed to have nothing to do–no ambitions. He was simply there, passing through, barely secured to anything. Anything besides their daughter. My parents and him had never had a formal introduction, though. He was tall in an unusual way that drew attention. However, his soft eyes, which were the color of warm fudge, would set people at ease. His nappy hair was usually hidden under a black denim baseball cap, unless it was stolen by my sister, as it was ever so often when she didn’t like the state of her own black coils.
He had never really garnered much room in my mind besides that fact that he seemed to be an ever-present figure in my life. The string between my sister and I had somehow been stretched to include him. Wherever he went, she was pulled there; and wherever she was, I was inclined to go. That’s how it had always been until that night.
The bent, green highway sign was the first clue to something being amiss. The skid marks were the second. Dad had bought the silver ‘05 Nissan Altima for her on her 17th birthday, but intended for us to share it when I finally got my license in October. However, I still drove it around to run errands for Mom on uncomfortable afternoons when the house was too warm to be in. The plate on the car was a bright yellow–the color of sunshine. The plate was the first thing the flashlights touched in the early morning air.
They had gotten drunk–a summer pastime. They swerved off the road, hit the sign, and came to a stop in the grassy median right under the shade of the pines. The Altima, which had been given the name Dusty, was wrapped around a tree. The middle of the car almost curved into a U-shape. Their packed bags’ contents were strewn about the car. Nine-hundred dollars in cash, the accrual of countless opening shifts, was found at the bottom of the tan duffel. Ralph was already gone from the impact. Yet, she was still there, the connection faint but secure. Her chest moved laboriously, aching for the return of that relief she had finally found.
Weeks later, when she managed to crawl out of the cavern of our room long enough for us to catch a brief glimpse of the blues and purples that colored her body, my parents would try to talk to her and pull her out of the dark. She never spoke more than a few words. Except to me.
“What were y’all planning to do?” I had asked, the day she was discharged.
Her body looked frail and unnatural, but the relief I felt from her still being here with me overwhelmed any feeling of contempt. I simply wanted to know why she wanted to go.
She laid in bed so still she seemed to be made of stone. I wanted to touch her to make sure she wasn’t cold but was still warm with life. She didn’t open her eyes, but slowly turned her neck, a feat that was difficult for her to manage with the pristine white brace around it.
“I don’t know. Just be, I guess.”
I shook my head to show her that I understood, immediately feeling shame for ever being jealous. A traitor to my own sister. I squeezed her hand slightly and gently laid on her mattress beside her. Our breathing soon fell into sync, instinctually.
The sun was slowly setting, prolonging the evening for the two of us to sit in an unusual, gentle silence.