Rylee is a student at Western Washington University; she is studying Creative Writing, Film, and Political Science. She enjoys writing about what she imagines the average person doesn't want to talk about. This is Rylee's first time being published and she is thrilled.
Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of my sister Mary’s death. Every year my parents and I go to dinner, but this year we forgot. My mother called me this morning to apologize, saying she and Dad were so busy with the remodel they just forgot. I didn’t forget, but I was not going to remind them.
“It is fine Momma, I’m sure she doesn’t mind,” I lie.
“You’re right, our Angel is too busy running around,” Momma says.
“I’m sure she is.” I know she wants to get off the phone; she just wants me to confirm she wasn’t a bad mother for forgetting her child’s death.
“Well Honey, Dad and I are off to brunch with the Nelson’s, so I’ll talk to you later. Love you Sweetie, say hi to Brandon for us.” she says, hanging up. I throw my phone on my desk, at the head of my bed. I sit on my dorm bed at Western Oregon and stare at my favorite picture of Mary and me.
When Mary was four she fell off the deck. I jumped the three feet to the ground, a cloud of dust puffed around my bare feet. I giggled and knelt next to her; she was still facedown in the dirt. She hadn’t been crying just breathing into the ground. I pushed her shoulder and she didn’t budge. I pushed her again, harder. Finally, I pushed her over; she landed on her back with a thud. Her legs were twisted, one was under her butt, and the other looped under the opposite knee like some wrong crisscross applesauce. Mary lay there and stared at me, tears welling in her eyes.
“Momma!” I screamed. I felt the tears that fell on my dusty cheeks.
The picture’s glass makes a noise like it is going to crack so I release my grip slightly. I feel the sting in my nose like I’m going to cry and toss the picture on my bed. It lands on my pillow with a soft puff. I cannot keep myself from looking at it again. I bring my fist down on the pillow next to the frame. The words on the frame seem foreign or just ironic; “Sisters Forever” blazes in purple glitter, like neon against the black background. In the picture two little girls sit on either side of a giant teddy bear; one is five, one is nine, one has a breathing tube and sits straight-backed in a wheelchair, one doesn’t.
I hear my phone vibrate on my desk. I get up and look at the lit screen.
Brandon- “Hey Babe, you didn’t come to Econ today. You good?”
Me- “Yeah I just overslept.”
Brandon- “Alright, well I can stop by when I am done with class if you want.”
I sit back down on my bed phone in hand. Brandon knew better than to ask about yesterday or Mary, but he still worried. I glance at the photo like something about it might be different. Like maybe both the girls will me standing holding the bear. One is standing, one still straight-backed.
The year after Mary was paralyzed was the best year. New ‘Angel Mary’ brought so many perks with her: free movies, toys, candy. My parents took me out of school to help with Mary. My Momma was a high school teacher, but she quit to teach Mary and me. Then she would teach a GED class at night for extra money. Dad was a lineman and he took as much overtime as he could get to pay for everything. Every Saturday we got to go to the movies and we got to sit in the handicap seats, which were always the best. We would laugh and play throughout the movie and no one would say a thing. I ran up and down the aisles during the trailers. Mary screamed “Faster Katie, run faster.” During one game I tripped and hit my head on the armrest cup holder. Mary screamed with laughter as I stood and tried to clean the blood from my forehead with the back of my hand. The backs of both my hands were covered when I had to give up and get paper towels. They only had hand dryers. I reemerged in the theater clutching a wad of toilet paper to my head.
“You have to do that every time! It was so funny. You have to fall every time now Katie,” Mary squealed.
“But it hurt Mary,” I said.
“I don’t care. It was too funny,” she smiled back. I didn’t want to go to the movies anymore. I begged Momma to stop taking us. She only smiled.
After the movies stopped, Mary and I would spend all day watching Cinderella and acting out the ballroom scene. Mary was always the prince because she had the throne. I would wrap a towel around my waist and spin her around in her chair then she would scream “midnight,” I would whip off the towel and fall to the floor, pretending to clean it. Once she noticed the authority she could have, it never stopped. For a while I played along but then she started trying at the worst times. Late at night I would hear Mary’s voice through the baby monitor next to my bed “Midnight,” she would scream. I would awake suddenly and lie there until she said it again, “Midnight,” and I would eventually get up, walk into her room and pantomime sweeping her floor. She would giggle. All I could think about was my parents hearing their daughter yell “Midnight,” every night for a month.
I lean forward, letting my face fall onto the pillow. I feel the frame slide down the pillow and rest against my right cheek. I hold my breath as long as I can until letting my hot air fill the pillow, heating my face and forcing me to lift my head. The picture shifts as I sit up and then rest with my back against the wall. I hear a knock on my door and Brandon lets himself in. “Hey I brought you half a muffin but if you don’t want it I totally understand and I will eat it for you,” Brandon says, his mouth full. He kisses me and I can taste the poppy seed on his lips.
I giggle, “No you can have it.” He stuffs the rest of it in his mouth.
“Thanks Babe. Hey, want me to help you with your math?”
“No that’s ok maybe later.” My eyes are still glued to the photo but he doesn’t notice.
“Want me to help you out of your pajamas?” his terrible attempt at trying to seduce me.
“No,” I laugh, “I haven’t even brushed my teeth yet.” I smile at him.
“Alright,” he sighs, “then do you mind if I study for a while? Spanish is muerto-ing me.”
“Yeah sure.” He kisses me again. Then settling at my desk he opens his books and puts in his headphones. I stare back at the frame. My sister and I stare at me from their snapshot of happiness and I wish it were a picture of someone else's family.
For my tenth birthday my parents finally agreed to let me have a party. Since I didn’t go to school all the kids from the neighborhood came. Six kids and I could not have been happier. Dad got called in to do some overtime so it was just Momma, but she said it would be fine. My mother set up musical chairs for us. We ran in circles around chairs screaming and squealing. In the third round my birthday crown fell off and I was out, but I didn’t care because all those kids were there for me. It was down to two, Brandon Mitchell and Stephanie Ferguson. I watched Brandon as he ran around our dining chair. Then I heard her. Mary screamed in anger suddenly from the corner.
“It’s not fair! I can’t play, make them stop!” She yelled. Brandon and Stephanie ran in circles, waiting for the music to stop. Mary screamed at the top of her lungs until she was gulping for air. The music didn’t stop but everyone else did. The giggles ended and all that was left was Mary sobbing. My mother took Mary into her room. We all just waited, unmoving until my mother reappeared.
“Katie, you have to ask all your friends to go home, your sister isn’t feeling well,” Momma said to me. My heart dropped to my stomach and I thought I was going to scream or be sick. They were all standing behind me when my mother said it so my job was done for me.
“Momma, no all I want is this. Please, please don’t send them away.”
“I’m sorry Katie.” I turned around and saw they were all already putting on their shoes. I handed each of them their goodie bags, of a pencil, a Chinese finger trap and a kazoo, as they walked out the door. Each of them said nothing as they left. Brandon was the last to leave.
“I’m really sorry Katie, maybe next year will be better,” Brandon said as he walked out the door. I tried to smile at him. I knew there would be no next year. I knew there would be no party, ever again. That night I sat in my room and ate one slice of cake. I heard a knock on my door. My father stuck his head in, “Hey Katie, Mom told me what happened.”
“She ruins everything.”
“Now Honey, imagine how she feels. She only gets to watch everyone play. She will never get to be like you and your friends.”
“What friends?” I snapped, “After today I don’t have any.”
“Now I’m sure that’s not true. I know you are disappointed about your little party but you have to be Dad’s trooper now ok?
“Ok,” I growled.
“Great! Can you help feed Mary some birthday cake? Thanks Hun,” and without another word he left.
From age 8-15 my life was taking care of Mary, little angel Mary. I bathed her, fed her, dressed her, sat with her late at night, and gave up my childhood for her. My parents stopped seeing me as their daughter, I was just an extension of Mary’s life machine. They couldn’t see anything but Mary and she demanded it was that way. She thought the world owed her a new body but instead she got a family to run into the ground. The only time I left the house was to go grocery shopping with Dad. Neither of us ever spoke because I think we knew it would only hurt. Dad use to buy one bottle whiskey a week, but after the second year it was three. It is ok to be tired of a job or tired of the season but you can't get tired of a person, not a person that is only alive because of your efforts to keep them that way. The doctors always said she wouldn’t live past six. I think on her sixth birthday we were relieved that we got to keep our angel. As the years went on it started to feel less like a blessing and more like a fake expiration date.
When I was 14 I asked my mother if I could take swim lessons.
“How do you think that would make your sister feel?” I wasn't the one that was paralyzed but I might as well have been because I had to pretend. Sometimes I wish it had been me instead of Mary. Then she would have to take care of me. Only I wouldn’t make her life horrible. I would thank her; I would thank her and my parents everyday for caring enough to keep me alive. I would be content with my spot in the corner because I was alive. Once I found my mother crying in the laundry room. She had collapsed next to the dryer; she had a pile of dishtowels in her lap that she had been folding. She hadn't heard me come in.
“Momma?” She looked up suddenly.
“Go check on your sister for me, ok?” she sniffed, and dried her face with a dishtowel. I ran from the house. I sat at the end of our driveway and cursed Mary under my breath. She was killing all of us and it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t Momma’s fault she fell off that deck or mine or anybody's, why was she punishing us? Three of the neighborhood boys rode by on their bikes and I wished they were some mean biker gang, I could have jumped on the back of one of their bikes and just be gone. One of the boys stopped in front of me, Brandon.
“Hey Katie, what’s up?” Brandon said.
“I’m planning my escape,” I said.
“Oh yeah? To where?”
“Anywhere, wanna come?”
“Sure,” he laughed, “we can go wherever my bike can take us, so about to the end of the street and back.”
“Let’s go.” I stood and stepped up in front of his bike. I put my hands next to his and prepared to push myself up to sit on the handlebars.
“Hold on,” he said. As we were about to set off for the end of the street my mother came running out of the house.
“Katie! I need your help.” She ran back into the house before I could have said anything.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I said.
“Hey it’s cool, we can travel the neighborhood some other day. Bye Katie,” Brandon said and then rode off towards his house at the end of the street. I walked into the house and to Mary’s room. Mary was screaming at my mother. I stood in the doorway for a long time staring at them.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Mary doesn’t want to eat again.”
“I’m not going to fucking eat until I can walk again!” Mary screamed.
“That doesn’t even make sense Mary, you haven’t walked in seven years, how is starving yourself going to fix your spine?” I said. My mother tried again to put a slice of banana near her mouth. Mary allowed the banana in her mouth just to bring her teeth down into my mother’s fingers. My mother screamed and jumped back from her daughter. Mary spit the banana at her. My mother cried and clutched her hand to her chest.
“Katie, can you just, please,” Momma said between swift inhales. She left the room. She always left the room before she cried in front of us. I stood at the end of Mary’s bed and looked at her in complete disbelief.
“What?” she spat at me.
“You are such a fucking bitch.” I regretted the words the second they left my mouth. I knew it was the one to punish in this. She could have bitten her finger off and I would still be in trouble. I wanted to be grounded. I wanted a reason to spend days in my room, days away from her.
“You can’t say that to me,” she said.
“Why?” I kept talking; no punishment would be enough, “What are you gonna do? Run after me? Hit me? All you can do is yell for Momma, all you can do is make everyone hate you more.”
“Momma!” she yelled. I heard a cupboard in the kitchen slam and footsteps come back down the hall. My mother re entered the room.
“Katie called me a bitch and made fun of me for being paralyzed and, and she hit me,” Mary lied.
“Katie, you can’t,” my mother began.
“I know,” I cut her off, “I am deeply sorry for my words and actions Angel Mary,” I recited like I had so many times before. I walked across the hall to my room and flopped onto my bed. At least I would be free for a few hours.
I hear the click, click, click, of Brandon’s pencil bouncing on the desk. I try to stare at the bear instead of the girls in the photo, I want him to comfort me, to steal my attention away from the two, but my eyes keep darting from her face, to mine, to the bears.
When I was fifteen I snuck the boy from down the street into my room. Brandon had been the only kid from the neighborhood that had stayed my friend. He never asked me about Mary. He only cared about how I was doing. In the moments I was with him I forgot about Mary. I wasn’t thinking about what to make her for breakfast, or of getting up at 4am to change her diaper so she didn’t have to sleep in her own filth all night. I was thinking about this boy’s hands under my shirt and his mouth on mine. I began thinking of ways to keep him there as long as I could, ways I could escape Mary just a little bit longer.
“God, you’re so fucking hot,” he said with his lips on my neck. I didn’t say anything I just let my breath quicken. I would let him do anything, as long as this goes on forever. Moments later the baby monitor on my nightstand said “Katie,” in my sister’s voice. I sat there, the small speaker saying my name over and over while he looked at me, confused. I threw my pillow at the baby monitor. The pillow caught it and my lamp. They both fell to the floor and broke to pieces. I stared at the mix of plastic and glass on the floor.
“Should I go?” he asked, as he pulled his shirt back over his head. I said nothing I just kept looking at the mess at the floor.
I sat there until he left out my bedroom window and until I could hear Mary crying from her room. I entered Mary’s room at the same time my mother did.
“Momma, Katie didn’t come for 15 minutes,” Mary said.
“What is it you need? Angel,” Momma replied.
“I want another pillow.” My mother did as she was asked and walked back to her room. I watched her go she looked so tired. I knew there was a time she didn’t look so tired, didn’t look so defeated, but I didn’t remember when. She hadn’t even seen me as she closed the door behind her, leaving me with Mary. I looked at Mary. I moved towards her, not making eye contact.
“What are you doing here?” she asked in a tone like she hadn’t just called me in there. I said nothing and pulled the pillow out from under her head. Her head fell back onto the one pillow she had before.
I put the pillow over her face and pressed down. I expected her to struggle but she couldn’t. She only made muffled cries from beneath the feathers. I left my weight on the pillow for what seemed like an hour before I lifted it. In that instance she looked like my sister again and not like a tyrannical clipped bird in a tube and wire cage. I lifted her head and placed the second pillow back under her.
“I just wanted my sister.” I kissed her cheek. The doctors always said it was a miracle she lived past six. My parents grieved her lose like any parent would, but they were just a little lighter than before. My parents chose not to question it and told everyone she went peacefully in her sleep to run with the angels.
Mary and I were running in a field of grass along the coast, only she was four again. She bobbed next to me, her sandy pigtails flopping on either side of her head. She kept up and even passed me. Even though I was almost twice her size. I was happy for her. She smiled at me and I smiled back.
“Katie! I wanna run fovea”
“I’m not sure I can keep up.”
The night after her funeral I awoke in a sweat. I got up and walked into Mary’s room. Momma was sitting on the edge of the bed like she would when she was telling Mary goodnight, “Goodnight my Angel, goodnight my star, one day you will fly so far.” It wasn’t the best rhyme but Momma made it on the spot when Mary was still in the hospital.
“Oh, hi Baby.“ Momma looked at me and I expected to see tears in her eyes but they were dry.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Nothing, nothing. I was just thinking.”
“Bout’ what?” I sat on the bed next to her.
“That last night. I keep trying to think if there was something different. If I didn’t turn her air on enough, if it was too high, if, oh, no I know this must have been God’s work. He didn’t want to watch her suffer any longer. He must of needed another runner for the pearly gate track team huh?” she laughed. Momma wasn’t the best with jokes. Her sense of humor kind of broke with Mary’s neck.
“I had a dream about Mary,” I said, changing the subject.
“And what is our Angel doing?”
“We were running.”
“Good. She must be happy. She was sending you a sign.” I don’t think my mother could have known how much I would hold on to those words.
My parents and I went out to eat almost every night in the following month. We did all the things we wanted and never could. Mainly we just walked. We hiked, we climbed stairs, we just walked unashamedly and without guilt. The first time I saw true happiness on my parent’s faces was when I told them I was accepted to Western Oregon University, they wanted me to do everything. More than that they wanted to do everything.
I get up and start changing into real clothes. Brandon looks up to watch and I stick my tongue out at him. Running a brush through my thick dark blonde hair I say, “You wanna get some lunch?”
“What?” Brandon yells over his music. He takes out one headphone and I can hear the metal expand from the tiny bud.
“Mmm. Si!” He gets up and closes his book and stands in the doorway. I replace the picture on the shelf above my desk. Maybe Mary is running with the Angels, or maybe she is in that chair in Hell. I smile at Mary for a second, she and I smile back, so unaware and happy.