What scared me the most were the summers with her. Once we stepped into that dry world full of listless winds and dirt clouds that bit at our feet and burned our eyes she was at her most frightening. No longer anchored by the ferocity of the cold that prompted her to hide beneath thick coats and scarves. She was in full form during the summer.
When we walked to town to get root beer floats from Lola’s soda shop, I would watch her from the corner of my eye. She wore her skirts scandalously short with her favorite ruffled blue top that revealed her pale shoulders and smooth, flat stomach. She looked at me and the rest of the world over the brim of her red sunglasses. She seemed to know something we didn’t. When I would try to hold her hand, she would pull her fingers impatiently from my hot grasp.
“Easy Molly, jeez, why are your hands always so sweaty,” she’d say.
I’d shrug and stuff my accursed fingers back inside the pockets of my overalls. We were going to see Billy, he was old—too old, but she didn’t care. She said he was miles better than the beastly boys that went to her school. My sister was a goddess to me, and I was too lowly, too ignorant of the adult world, too obsessed with her to see that she was heading toward destruction. Of course, I didn’t know that then, yet even if I had I would still walk with her every summer afternoon into the heaving, swaying world of society and watch with tears in my eyes her ultimate demise. I would cradle her head in my hands, I would brush the hair from her face, I would smooth down that shattered skirt and through it all she’d still roll her eyes and say, “Jeez Molly, you’re such a sap.”
The day that it happened, I remember waking up slowly. I was groggy with sleep and the remains of my dream still lingered in my mind. I rolled onto my back and listened to the sound’s mama made as she moved around in the kitchen downstairs. She slapped pots against the stove and grumbled-- none too quietly-- about her lazy daughters who would sleep all day if she let them. She would eventually get herself worked up into such a froth that she would storm upstairs and throw open our bedroom doors and bellow at us to get up. I still had a good hour or so before that happened. As I made to turn over onto my side, I noticed my sister lying next to me and I screamed. It wasn’t her being there that frightened me. It was the state of her that turned my blood cold and brought goosebumps to my arms and legs.
Her right eye was swollen shut. A puffy, cabbage colored mess. There were purple polka dots that ran down her arms, her skirt was torn to shreds and her coveted ruffled blue top was now crudely tied together after being ripped in two.
At the sound of my scream, my sister woke up and with one swift movement clamped her hand hard over my mouth. Her palm was rough and tasted like metal. “Shut up Molly, do you want mama to come in here and see me like this?” she hissed.
I shook my head. No.
“I don’t want them to find out,” she removed her hand, “not yet.”
With a groan, she turned to face the wall. I stared at her back, watching as her shoulders shook with the effort of her muted weeping. I considered comforting her. My hand hovered in the air but the sight of my jagged nails encrusted in dirt made me ball my fingers into a fist, I dropped my hand. I could not touch her.
There was a heavy ball in my stomach that pitched and rolled as I climbed out of bed and threw on my overalls. I opened my bedroom door slowly, giving myself just enough room to squeeze out before closing it shut behind me. I tiptoed to the bathroom.
I splashed cold water on my face and looked at myself in the mirror. Would that happen to me one day? Thinking about it made me feel sick. If that’s what being a woman meant, then I hoped I would never become one. I would resent my breasts and loath the flower between my legs if it meant that I could be destroyed so easily. I didn’t want to look at myself anymore. The pink towel hanging over the edge of the tub made my heart constrict painfully in my chest. That was her towel, still damp from her shower last night. I grabbed it on my way out as I crept back to my room.
I crawled onto the bed beside my sleeping sister and with slow methodical movements, I cleaned the blood and dirt from her face. I took her hands in mine and cleaned them too. I stared too long at the chipped nail polish, feeling an immutable anger rising within me. She never let her nail polish chip. She was very diligent about keeping her nails neat and manicured.
“Did Billy do this,” I asked.
She pretended not to have heard me, so I repeated my question louder. She nodded. She was an older woman now, with a spirit that was heavy and fatigued with the world. She told me I might as well get her some clean clothes to wear. I didn’t want to go into her room though, I didn’t want to share a space with the ghost of the girl she used to be. She shot me one of her deathly stares that said stop being such an idiot Molly.
There was no room for me to argue so I stole into the hallway once again, this time turning left towards my sisters’ room. When I opened her bedroom door I was immediately assaulted by her perfume, Evening in Paris. No matter how long the span of years stretched between this moment I would never forget her scent. I opened her dresser; there were remnants of neatness here, clothes half folded, tossed hither and thither in the search for a particular shirt. I pulled out a long-sleeved white blouse at the bottom of the drawer and from her closet, I grabbed a pair of thick brown trousers which mother had bought her for school, of course, she never wore them, she claimed they made her look like a boy. They did. I shook the pants free of wrinkles and wrapped them around my arm. When I left her room, closing her door quietly behind me I felt like I was shutting close a tomb.
I threw her clothes on the bed when I got back to my room and watched her get dressed in silence. I pretended not to hear the sharp hiss of pain when she lifted her arms above her head to pull her shirt down. Her stomach was now some kind of strange art; mottled and discolored against a pale white canvas. Once dressed she stood up and went to the bathroom.
Not once during that day or the days following did we say the word. I think we felt that if we said it aloud it would be real and neither of us wanted to confront it fully. We edged close to it, we looked at it from the corner of our eyes, but we did not say it. She never told our parents. I think she meant to, especially during soft moments when we all sat together as a family but something in her kept her lips sealed tight. She would look at me mournfully almost begging me to take the responsibility from her, but I couldn’t tell them either. I loved her too much to be the cause of any more pain.
The summers became dull. No longer brimming with the thrill of danger that my sister would always inadvertently bring. Sometimes I would wake up from dreams where I could hear the faint laughter of a girl in a ruffled blue shirt and in the dark, I would cry for the sister I lost. The sister that both terrified and amazed me.