by Amy Harris
Something is wrong. It is blue—somewhere between navy and royal. A couple of teeth are missing, but it still works well. I have never paid so much attention to my comb before, but this morning it suddenly seems immensely important. Important because I can hear people in the kitchen talking, an alien sort of talking—hurried, hushed, and desperate. I have heard that talk somewhere before. I am only sixteen, but I have heard that kind of talking before.
Something is wrong. I leave the bathroom, taking the comb with me, and go into my parents’ bedroom. Their room has a bigger mirror, and besides, it is farther away from the strange talking. I leave the bedroom and meet my sister in the hall. She says three words to me. Something is wrong.
A rock. There is a rock in my stomach, and it is growing, overtaking me, filling me with pain and anger. I can’t stop it, and it finally comes out: I cry. Betsy hugs me and holds my hand. Funny, I don’t remember hugging her for a long time, and I never remember her holding my hand. Why now? Something is wrong, something to do with those three words.
Somehow I have moved into the front room. Betsy is still in the bathroom. Dad and Mom and Alan and Susan are also in the front room. Where is Barbara? Strange, she should be here if Alan and Susan are. Then I remember, and the rock is back in my stomach. Barbara is the something that is wrong. Her name is one of those three words.
Tears, or their memories, hang in the air. Mom hugs me and holds my hand. But she can’t make what’s wrong go away. She knows that, so do I, but we keep hugging and holding hands. I am sitting, and she is standing over me. I can see her dress. It is black with some small white pattern. The pattern seems to be a cross between flowers and butterflies.
The butterflies dance around the spring blossoms on the apricot tree. I love the smell of apricots in spring. I stare at the tree with its blizzard of flowers. I almost forget that I am playing “Hide and Seek.” I remember to come back to the game. I know where my neighbor is hiding. I am just about to look behind the bush where she is hiding behind when I hear the honk. Our car comes speeding out the gravel driveway, Mom and Dad in the front with Barbara in the back. The car heads down the road and quickly moves out of sight. I move towards the bush again.
Someone is yelling my name. It is my sister, Deborah. She tells me to come inside for the night. She has been crying and she is upset. She’s hardly ever upset.
The next day is tense at home. There are hushed conversations. Everybody is edgy, except for Barbara because she isn’t home. I know why she isn’t here: too many pills. Take too many pills, trying to end it all and going to the hospital. Mom and Dad tell me about Barbara’s being in the hospital—too many pills. Only sixteen and too many pills.
Sixteen. I’ll be sixteen this fall. I was ten when I played “Hide and Seek.” I am sixteen now, and I’m not playing anything. It’s spring again, but there are no apricot blossoms. There’s no apricot tree anymore. We moved away from that tree and its flowers. I don’t want apricot blossoms after those three words: “Barbara shot herself.” Three words, six syllables. Six syllables that won’t stop echoing: “Barbara shot herself … Barbara shot herself … Barbara shot herself.” I can still hear those three words. They won’t stop echoing.
I hear the nurse’s footfalls echoing off the walls of the intensive care unit. Her white shoes on the white floor under the white ceiling. Too much white. Not enough color. Not enough life. I’m in Barbara’s room now. I am with Dad and Susan. Susan is crying. She talks to Barbara. Barbara can’t hear. Maybe she won’t hear. Susan still cries. She takes Barbara’s hand and squeezes it. I look at Barbara’s hand. She needs to clip her nails. She needs to wash her fingers. There is blood on the cuticles. Blood. I can’t see the blood anymore for my tears. Dad is silent and controlled. He takes my hand, and we leave the room. We are walking down the hall. We’ve left the white behind. Now we are on light brown carpet. We go to the waiting room. He squeezes my hand and leaves. I can see the wallpaper. It has flowers on it. A few hours ago I liked flowers. Now there are too many of them, too many flowers, and it is too cold. The heater must be broken. It is so cold in here.
It is still cold. I started feeling cold four days ago, and I am still cold. Dad is talking. It’s cold, but the chill isn’t coming from the room. I’m cold, but tears are hot on my cheeks. I can see Barbara’s hand through them. She gestures towards the Kleenex box across the room. Dad keeps talking. I still have tears, but I can see the box. It is covered with flowers and butterflies. I don’t want to think about flowers and butterflies. I look at her hand again. I try to touch it; I just can’t. I once wanted to be just like her, and now I can’t even hold her hand.
“I want to be just like her.”
I’m looking up at Deborah and Susan. They are putting on makeup and brushing their hair. I can feel the cool white tile of the rim of the bathtub beneath my hands and the rich purple rug at my feet. We are getting ready for a birthday celebration. Barbara’s birthday celebration. She is thirteen today. I tell Deborah and Susan that although Barbara is officially a year older, she does not look any different to me than when she was twelve.
“I want to be just like her when I grow up,” I proudly tell them.
“Oh ya do, do ya?” Deborah smiles down at my five-year-old frame.
“Sure. Only I’ll have long hair.”
Growing up to be like Barbara is my greatest hope, but I don’t think I could give up my long hair for it. I lean back against the rim of the tub again. I feel the refreshing cold of the white. Reveling in thoughts of growing up to be like Barbara, I contentedly put my hands on the cool tub, and dig my toes into the endless depths of purpleness.
The deep purple of the petals shine in the sunlight. I put the flower on the mound. Barbara helps me stamp the dirt around better, and she says a few gentle words. She calms my seven-year old fear of death. Boris had been a good puppy. She explains why all beings, including humans, must die. She helps me understand that dying is not the end. That dying leads to something better. I don’t completely understand, but I feel better. I look down at our dirty, summer-hardened feet. I feel the dirt pushing between our toes. The dirt that covers Boris. It feels warm and pleasant. It makes my feet look black.
The night is black and cool. The crisp autumn air feels good on my face and the football feels slippery in my hands. I hold the ball tighter in the crook of my arm and run. I feel her hands grabbing me and pulling me down, but she is too late. I have already scored the touchdown.
Next we practice offensive patterns. We’ve been working on these for the past year, and at eight years old I feel experienced. She is great at offensive patterns, and she is teaching me everything she knows.
The cool grass tickles my feet and makes me run faster. The rays of our backyard floodlights cast a shadow as we throw the ball back and forth. Our shadows leap and tangle in the light. I can see our shadows together, then apart.
I run back for a pass. I know that I’m going too fast. I trip and fall. I ask Barbara to come help me because my ankle hurts. She jogs over. Before she reaches me, I look up. The floodlights are behind her—glowing. For a moment she pauses, and the lights cast her shadow across me and the lawn. Through the shadow, she puts out her hand and picks me up.
But that was when I was eight; now I am sixteen. Why doesn’t she keep picking me up?
Why? I don’t know. All I know is that there are no more dribbling practices, no more summer evenings playing games, no more watching the sunrise from Bear Canyon, no more lessons on right and left. No more of anything, except pain. Pain and fear. Fear and anger. Anger and guilt. Guilt because of anger. Just guilt remains.
Guilt and talking. Everybody seems so intent on talking. No one will just be quiet and let it disappear. They just keep on talking and asking questions. But I don’t want the answers.
Questions. So many questions. Why did she do it? Why did she let me down? How could she take my hero away? Doesn’t she understand how bad it is? Doesn’t she care about us? Does she hate us? I can’t believe she would let me down. I can’t forgive her. I can’t love
NO! That’s bad. Of course I love her. How can I not? I do love her, but I hate her too. No, I can’t hate her—she’s my sister. No, I can’t hate her. I hate what she did to me, to our parents, to our brothers and sisters. Why did she do it? Why? Why? Why? I don’t want to answer that. I don’t want to think about it or talk about it. Talking takes too much energy and hurts too much.
I am downstairs. Barbara is with me. She is doing her laundry. I am watching television. Barbara asks me a question. I evade it and notice the yellowness of the light bulb. Why can’t they make a pure, clean light bulb? Why yellow? Yellow is so hollow, so decayed. She asks me the question again.
“Mad. Why?” The question makes me cold.
Good, now I’m cold again. Cold is good. Oh no, I’m getting hot. It must be that light bulb and its yellow light. No, it isn’t; it’s tears. No, please not tears again. I hate tears. There have been too many of them over the last six months. I’m mad at the tears.
“Mad. Why?” The question makes me cold.
She has tears also. Hers are pain and love. Mine are anger. I look at the carpet. It is an awful combination of browns and oranges. It looks soiled and deteriorated.
“Mad, you. Why?”
Mad at tears because they are hot. Mad at light bulbs because they are yellow. Mad at you because—sorry. I’m so sorry, so sorry, so sorry. There are even more tears, but they have more pain and love than anger. I’m sorry, sorry, sorry, sor—please no more sorry. Please forgive. Forgive you. Forgive me, please. Please let me say it. “Forgive me, please.”
“Forgive ……. Forgive?”
Through the tears I can see her hand. It’s moving. She takes my hand. I can feel her skin. It’s been so long since I touched her, but I remember the touch and feel of her fingers from so long ago. I remember feeling spring. I remember smelling apricot blossoms. I am smelling apricot blossoms now. She holds my hand. And I hold hers.