Authors: Sarah Wylie
Renee asks how I’ve been and how Jena is.
I copy and paste two “fines,” and then, halfway through her introducing me to her new boyfriend, she slinks even closer to him and starts digging her fingers through the spikes in his hair. I take that as my cue to leave and let them be alone with the fifty-seven other people in this room.
“As per my predictions,” I tell Spencer, when I finally run into him sometime around ten and after I’ve had way more success finding drinks, “this party sucks.”
“Well, it doesn’t look like you’ve had
much of a bad time,” he remarks, noting the cup in my hand and the way I can’t exactly stand up straight.
We are side by side, both of us facing forward and unwisely leaning back on a cabinet that features expensive little glass ornaments from all of Nelson’s parents’ exotic upper-middle-class vacations.
“What can we do to accommodate your impossibly high party standards?” Spencer has his arms folded across his chest, watching me from the corner of his eye, and I wonder where he has been. What exactly do non-posers do at parties? He doesn’t even seem wasted. Suddenly he lets out a small laugh. “You know people are still talking about that party in September? You’re kind of a legend.”
I give a small smile.
At a party thrown by I-don’t-know-who, I got dared to eat this concoction some kids had mixed together. It contained mustard, raw eggs, soymilk, and sesame seeds, but those were just the ingredients I could recognize when they were coming back out. The beers I’d flown through that night probably didn’t help, either.
It was nearly two months after Jena got sick, the first big party after school started, when all I wanted was to be someone else, to not be the sick girl’s twin sister. I was hacking in the bushes in front of I-don’t-know-who’s house, post-concoction, when I finally realized I couldn’t be anyone else. I didn’t deserve to be anyone else, to be at a party or even at school, not while Jena was elsewhere dissolving.
“That was fun,” Spencer muses.
“It was okay.”
He shifts even closer to me now so our hands are almost touching on the cabinet, but still doesn’t face me. “Well, as I said, tell me what I can do to accommodate your needs and I’ll do my best.”
Just then, some guy comes up to Spencer and starts talking his ear off. Spencer tells me he’ll be right back and they walk away, leaving me still leaning against the cabinet, alone.
It’s only after he’s gone that I realize that Spencer might have meant something I hadn’t even considered. It’s weird to think about. He’s cute, but …
The last hour is a bit of a blur. I only know that Spencer doesn’t come back. I think for a second that I see Candy, but she’s curled up on a couch by herself, crying, so that can’t be right.
I drink some more. I stumble outside.
It’s freezing and I’m underdressed. I sit down on a step at the back of the house and press my palm against the wall. The house is convulsing, shaking, not like it wants to collapse, but as if it wants to expel all the people inside it. I keep my hand flat on the wall, with my ear close to it so I can hear it screaming.
Too many people. Must get them out.
Are you scared?
“No, I’m not scared,” I whisper back. “Are you?”
I’m waiting for its reply when I hear feet crunching against the snow, moving toward me.
“Are you talking to yourself?” Pause. “Or the building?”
The person sounds so far away, standing up while I’m crouched down with my face still up against the wall.
“No, I’m not scared. Who are you?”
It’s all a blur, but somehow I get home. Maybe it’s a Good Samaritan. Renee or some other person I know peripherally from school. Probably it’s Spencer.
It doesn’t even matter, but I’m so wasted, I keep imagining it’s Jack Penner.
The world is fast asleep. Or, at least, the one within these four corners. I stumble to the kitchen, find a glass, and gulp down two cups of water. Then I make my way upstairs, careful to pick up the various items I knock down. I tiptoe down the hall and instead of going right, I go wrong.
Stuck on Jena’s door is a newspaper cutout from when her soccer team won state almost two years ago. There’s a black-and-white picture of the entire team: messy ponytails, grassy white uniforms, and glistening smiles. Next to it is a piece of paper with a picture of a skull and a No Entry sign that has been up there even longer. The papers rustle, jeering at me as I barge into Jena’s room without knocking, momentarily fearing an impassioned tirade about boundaries and
. But this Jena is as weak as the pieces of paper on her door that are missing corners; there is no tirade.
I close the door partway before I head to her bed. Fortunately, there is nothing to trip over in here. My parents are in and out so often that they’ve adjusted the room to suit their needs.
I find her buried under a pile of blankets. Peel off the first layer and she’s not there. Peel off the second, the third, the fourth. There’s Jena Baby. That’s where she’s hiding.
“Jena,” I whisper close to her ear. “Jena, wake up.”
She moans and pulls the last blanket back over her.
“Jena.” I shake her gently. “Wake up. I want to show you something.”
A couple of minutes later, she finally opens her eyes. The darkness swallows her pupils and mostly I see the white in her eyes. “What’s going on?”
She sits up slowly. “You stink. Are you drunk?”
“Will you please come outside with me? I want to show you something.”
Jena appraises me for a second. “Right now?” I hang my head. “I’m really tired, Dani.”
“It won’t take long, I promise.”
It’s almost midnight. We have two hours before Mom is up and about.
I watch as she gets out of bed, gently, like she’s afraid she’ll break something. I stand back and stare, not sure whether to offer my services or let her be.
She tells me where her coat is and I help her put it on. My fingers accidentally jab at her waist, or maybe it’s not her waist, and I pause.
“Here.” I untangle two other blankets from the pile and make her stand still while I Saran-Wrap her in them. Around and around so she doesn’t break on the way down the stairs. “One more.” So the cold doesn’t get into her chest.
I help her downstairs and we head out the back door. Outside, it still looks like night. Somebody needs to do something about the way time works around here, push it back some. Midnight is too early to be a new day.
“What is it?” Jena asks, her teeth chattering. I look away from her, annoyed at how her teeth clash and run into each other, how her lips are a tinge of moonlight blue even though we’ve only been out a minute. It’s not even that cold.
I don’t say anything, just point up at the sky. The stars look like smudged glitter on a messy kindergarten project.
The snow on the ground is dry, almost hard, compared to fresh snow. But as I walk, the ice crust on the top layer breaks under my shoes. Jena follows me further into the yard, but stops when I’m in a pile of snow up to my ankles. I sit first and then lie down in my bed of snow. Jena just looks at me and, for a second, I’m certain she’s going to turn around and go back into the house.
A moment later, though, she’s sitting down on a slightly shallower patch. Neither of us speaks and I listen for the sound of squirrels or owls or Mrs. Frisby and the other rats from that book Dad used to read to us when we were little. I bet there’s a snake out here tonight. A winter snake.
Didn’t I use to be afraid of these things?
“Once upon a time,” her voice cuts into the darkness, “there was an elf named Billy.”
There’s a silence, signaling my turn.
“Billy was deathly allergic to tomatoes. They made him sneeze.”
Once upon a time, Jena and I used to make up fairy tales. We’d be driving to visit our grandparents in Michigan, or heading to the mall or a dentist’s appointment. The only rule was that there were to be no princesses (they were so overdone, Jena said) and no fairy godmothers (too much of a cop-out), and no dragons. The no-dragon thing was my contribution. I have something against dragons, and I don’t mind that they all seem to be extinct.
Everything else, though, is fair game.
“Every time Billy came near a tomato, he started wheezing. He’d say, ‘Get that to … to … tom-AH-to away from me,’” Jena says. “And that’s where the big argument comes from. Tomato, tom-ah-to. Anyway, one day, as Billy was walking home from elf school, he ran into a wizard.”
“The wizard’s name was Harry,” I start, only to be instantly interrupted by Jena.
“His name can’t be Harry. That’s lame.”
I sit up. “Excuse me, did I interrupt your story? And, if you remember, there are no rules, Jenavieve.”
I don’t mind if you call me Danielle. I don’t even mind if you call
Jenavieve, but don’t call my sister that.
Her knuckles make contact with my shoulder before she takes over. “The wizard’s name was Alfonso, and he’d spent his entire life searching for Billy.” Her teeth are like cymbals clanging against each other. Three blankets is not enough, but three blankets swallows her whole. Look at her eyes. Jena Baby needs one more layer. Or three. “You see, it turns out that although Billy had been born an elf, on his seventh birthday—”
A door suddenly slams and a cold wind travels toward us, bringing with it my mother. “Oh my God,” she yells, “are you crazy?” A rhetorical question. She picks Jena up off the ground, removing the robe she’s flung over her pajamas and trying to slip it on over my sister’s cocoon. I was right that she needed one more blanket. “Do you know how cold it is out here? What were you thinking?”
She hustles Jena inside, depositing a few teaspoons of saliva on her face, I’m sure, because while she’s mostly yelling at me, she’s too distraught to turn her back on my sister.
“Mom, it’s okay,” Jena protests, but her arguments fall on deaf ears.
I trail behind them until they disappear into the house, and then I turn around and go back to where we were sitting.
We never got to finish our story, but it’s better that way. The best ones aren’t supposed to end. My mother is still inside tending to Jena and tucking her blankets underneath her mattress, so they don’t slip out and let her fall. But even though she’s not here this instant, I know what Mom wants to say to me, what she’s thinking right now.
Are you insane, Danielle? Did you bring her out here to die? How many times do I have to tell you that she’s not like us?
And she’s right. What was I thinking? Jena has a fever, and those things matter now. Everything matters.
The air feels thick, chilly, the same way it suddenly did that night when I saw the bruises, even though that was summer and this is winter. It was some nighttime barbecue in July, and I think I was standing right here and Jena was standing right there. They were blue and gray, just under her shoulder blades. A blue and gray that would have looked beautiful in the sky, but not on my sister’s back. Blue and grays aren’t supposed to matter, but they did.
A stupid story my mother told, the things she said about me but not about Jena—that wasn’t supposed to matter, either.
Am I the girl with nine lives?
I try to hold my breath, because it can’t be true. But there’s only one way to know for sure if Mom was right about me.
The lump in my throat rises and threatens to consume me. Moisture seeps into my ankles, melted snow on my socks.
I follow my feet behind the house, to the icy square lake that also functions as a pool. Peeling off my wet socks but keeping on my jeans, I pull back the pool cover and stick my toes in the water. It feels like a million little bites, a thousand bitter stabs, freezing, burning, scalding, cold.
Am I the girl with nine lives?
I lower myself into the water. All of me. And sink into it, gritting my teeth as I push myself underwater. Then I stay, fighting the urge to come up for air. Waiting, waiting, is this going to work, when will they find me, my brain is cold, I’m so sleepy, I can’t think. I’ve been under here too long.
* * *
I am the girl with nine lives. Or six, because of the car accident. Because of the chest infection. Because of this.
The floor of this pool would have pulled Jena to the bottom, sucking all the air from her lungs. She would have drowned.
I have to be the girl with nine lives, because I
just drown, and now, I’m back.
“What the hell did you think you were doing?” my mother fumes as she stands behind me on her bed. A million blankets are bundled around me, and she’s towel-drying my hair. I feel like a wet dog and suddenly I get this urge to shake, shake, shake all the water off me. But I am too tired.
She’s been yelling at me for quite some time now. Yelling and sniffing, switching between Parenting Technique One: I’m all ears and just tell me how you
, and Parenting Technique Two: You’re damn lucky I don’t believe in corporal punishment.
After finding and pulling me out of the pool, Dad has wisely made himself scarce. He’s been “checking on Jena” for the past half hour.
“Well?” Mom keeps saying, and waiting for me to talk. I still feel cold. It’s a chill that eats away at the inside of me so the blankets don’t matter. I’ve been shivering for nearly an hour now. I am so tired.
“How am I supposed to help you if you won’t talk to me?” Mom asks.
She doesn’t remember what she’s said all these years, that her words stayed with me when they weren’t supposed to.
I am the girl with nine lives.
“I’m sorry,” I finally say.
She stops drying my hair and gets me another blanket and socks for my feet.
“You can sleep in here tonight,” she says. It’s not an option. My behavior has demoted me to sleeping in my parents’ bedroom. I want to argue or run to my own room while her back is turned. I’ll draw skulls and crossbones on the door so she knows she can’t enter. But I don’t feel like me. So I lie down and fall asleep.