I was nine when my big sister ran away.
My parents lied to me, telling me that she would be back soon.
“She’s just gone for a little while, Norma,” my mom said.
Dad said, “She’s on vacation. She’ll be back soon.”
So I waited for her to come home for five years, but she never did. I didn’t even know if she was alive. My parents didn’t talk about her—at least not in front of me. I was always the child.
When I was fifteen, I was leaving the house when I heard Mom and Dad arguing in the kitchen. I leaned against the wall outside the door and listened.
“Well, what did she say?” said my dad.
My mom was silent for so long I thought they were whispering.
The walls in our hallway were wooden paneled. I ran my finger in one of the crevasses, wondering if anyone else in the world had done it before.
My dad bellowed at my mom, and I jumped a little, cutting my finger.
“Damnit, Claire,” he said, “Tell me what she said. Did she ask for more money?”
“Keep your voice down,” Mom said. “She told me she had been arrested.”
I sucked the blood from my cut, pressing my face against the wall and closing my eyes.
My dad’s fist hit the counter.
“Where was she?” he asked.
“She’s in Dallas.”
My dad’s voice was strained. “She was so close this whole time,” he said. “Why didn’t she just come home?”
She was alive. It had been so long since I’d even heard someone talk about her existence I’d almost convinced myself that she was my imaginary best friend. I stood there, listening to my parents standing in silence. I knew they weren’t hugging. They just didn’t do that anymore. They didn’t hug each other, and they didn’t hug me.
My phone vibrated in my pocket.
Could you take any longer? AJ had typed.
I pushed off from the wall, typing out my response. I’ll be there in a minute. Geez. I walked out of the house, still sucking at my wound. The tiniest cuts always hurt the most.
It wasn’t until I was 19 years old when my parents finally confirmed my theories of having a sister.
“She just got out of rehab,” Dad said.
We sat in the living and Mom had her hand on my shoulder, but her touch felt distant on my skin. “She’s going to be moving in with us for a while.”
“We’re going to pick her up in the morning, blossom,” Dad said.
I cringed at ‘blossom.’ What an awful endearment. Telling your youngest daughter that her imaginary sister that’s been gone for ten years is coming back because she really existed all this time, but I’m going to make it better by awkwardly holding your shoulder and pretending you’re a blossom.
“Tomorrow morning?” I asked.
I shrugged off Mom’s hand, and she sighed with relief and went into the kitchen.
“I work tomorrow.”
Dad asked, “Can’t you ask off?”
“Couldn’t you have told me sooner?”
“Just call and ask off,” he said.
“They’ll cut my hours, and I can’t lose my hours.”
Mom was drying dishes in the kitchen. “We need to be a supportive family for her,” she said from over the counter.
Dad smiled and nodded. He patted me on the leg before getting up and joining Mom in the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator, pulled out a beer, and went to his office. Mom didn’t look at me as she continued to wipe down dishes. She just hummed like everything was perfect. Our life was just perfect. Dad’s alcohol obsession was perfect. Mom’s affair and workaholic tendencies were perfect. Me being a lesbian was perfect. My imaginary sister coming home was perfect. My family pretended if you didn’t acknowledge your problems, then they just simply didn’t exist. But they existed to me.
I sat on the porch and called my manager, cigarette in hand.
“I can’t come in tomorrow,” I told him.
“Are you sick?” Jackson asked.
“No,” I said, “My sister is getting out of rehab.”
“You have a sister?”
I shrugged and said, “I guess so.” I ran my finger along the splintered wood of the porch stairs.
“Couldn’t you have told me sooner?”
“I just found out today.”
“That she’s getting out?”
“That I have a sister,” I said.
“Do you need more time off?”
“Please, no,” I said. “I need all the hours you can give me. Just not tomorrow.”
“Okay, Norma. Then I’ll see Tuesday morning.”
I sat in the tree house in the backyard that night, smoking cigarette after cigarette.
AJ kept texting me. I thought we were gonna chill? Where are you? Norm, don’t make me break in through your window. Are you thinking about things with Jamie again? Y’all breaking up was for the best, you know that. Don’t shut yourself away from the world. I want to help. Norma, I have Twizzlers.
I bet she’d look like me. I could see her in my head, but just barely. I only remembered brief memories with her. She was eight years older than me. Her seventeen-year-old life had been much different than my nine-year-old fantasy realm. It occurred to me that I knew nothing about her. I didn’t know why she was arrested, or what she in rehab for, or why she abandoned me.
Norma. Ignoring won’t make me go away.
I finally texted him back. Sister is getting out of rehab tomorrow. In a weird mood. Talk more later?
AJ responded almost instantly. Okay. 🙁
I didn’t get much sleep that night. I stared at my ceiling covered in glow-in-the-dark stars. This time tomorrow I’d have a sister.
Mom didn’t come with Dad and me to pick up Marlow from rehab. Mom confessed that she had important meetings. Important meetings that trumped being a ‘supportive family.’
Let me know how it goes today. AJ wrote to me as Dad and I were driving the two hours to pick her up.
I imagined the rehabilitation center to be prison like, but as we wound through the outskirts of Fort Worth, Texas, I realized it was more like a paradise. Shea’s Rehab Clinic was a mansion, which sat back up on a hill. The front of the mansion jutted out, overlooking the lush, green landscape with long windows that connected the floor to the roof.
“Do we go in?” he asked, as we pulled under the overhanging roof of the lobby entrance.
I shrugged. “I’ve never picked anyone up from rehab before.”
“Try to be pleasant,” he said. “You should let her sit in front, dandelion.”
I got out of the car.
“Dad,” Marlow said from the sliding doors.
My dad was already on his way to embrace her. He swept her up into a hug where he lifted her off the ground. He’d never hugged me like that.
She looked different than I thought she would.
Marlow’s hair was red like mine, but she had it braided and hanging down her back. She had freckles on her face, arms, legs, neck, everywhere. Mom’s upturned nose, Dad’s hands, Mom’s lips, Dad’s brow, Mom’s jaw, Dad’s height. I leaned against the car door, waiting for the sap-fest to end.
Marlow’s eyes fell to me as she approached the car with her single duffle bag.
I wanted to hug her, but I didn’t. I wanted to scream. How could you leave me like you did, and now be standing here smiling at me? I wanted to slap her and tell her how much I hated her for being real and not my imaginary best friend. Because I could have forgiven an imaginary friend I outgrew, but I couldn’t forgive her.
“Hi,” I said. I got into the backseat.
Dad and Marlow talked in the front seat while we drove home. I put my headphones in but didn’t play any music. I wanted to hear her voice. I wanted to hear what she had to say.
“She doesn’t seem to happy to see me,” Marlow said after she’d turned to ask me a question, and I ignored her.
Dad smiled. “Don’t worry, pumpkin. She’ll come around.” He beamed the whole way home, while I picked at a strand of string coming out of the car upholstery.
Marlow had tattoos on her arms and bad scarring around her inner elbows. She had dark circles under her eyes and more wrinkles in her brow than me. All of her clothes looked like she’d borrowed them from a man in the 70’s. She wore baggy overalls and tie-die and big, tacky sweaters.
Dad took her to the “play” room as my parent’s liked to call it. Complete with a treadmill, yoga pad, board games, and a half-of-the-stuffing-is-missing beanbag. They had moved most of the stuff out and put in a blow-up mattress for her. There was a small desk in the corner, they’d taken from storage and a dark purple curtain hung over the window. I stood at the door, while dad showed her around the room, like she’d never been in it before.
“You’ll have plenty of closet place,” he said, almost dancing around with glee. “Your window overlooks the front yard, and you’ll be sharing a bathroom with Norma right down the hall.”
Marlow smiled at him and sat down on the bed.
Dad closed her door and headed downstairs into the kitchen. I heard the refrigerator door open and a bottle cap snap.
I typed out a message to AJ. Tree house tonight. I tucked the phone into my pocket, and then I remembered and pulled it out again. Bring Twizzlers. I typed as I went to my room.
I lay down, and on my bedside table, there was a framed photo of Jamie and me. Jamie had long brown hair, tan skin, and big brown eyes. I closed my eyes, wondering what she was doing at that moment. Maybe she was out with her friends, or at work, or sleeping, or eating. I imagined her doing all those things, and then I imagined her lying there with me.
I picked up the locket she had given me with our picture in it. I didn’t open it, but I held it. I closed my eyes, trying to imagine her presence, but it just brought me back to the last time I’d seen her.
“You can’t just shut me out,” Jamie said. She was wearing that blue dress I loved so much. I had taken her to Olive Garden, but we left early because I couldn’t talk. That happened to me a lot. I just didn’t have anything to say to anyone. “You can’t just ignore my existence.”
“I’ll do better,” I said, my voice almost a whisper.
“You always say that,” she said. She stared out the window.
I reached over for her hand, but she didn’t acknowledge me.
I said, “Let’s just go home. I’ll be better tomorrow.”
“How can I live like this?” she said. “It’s like you’re not even human. Do you feel anything?”
I wanted to cry right then and there. I wanted to show her that I could cry, that I had feelings, that she made me have feelings. I strained my forehead, but no tears came out. I crinkled my nose and still nothing.
“I do feel,” I said.
Jamie laughed, but it sounded like a cry. She didn’t look at me the whole way home. When we got to my house, she got out of the car and started to walk down the street.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“I’m leaving,” she said.
“Please,” I said, but nothing else came out.
Jamie stopped half a house away in the middle of the road, turning to me. “Please what, Norma?”
“Please, don’t. Please. Please.” It was time for the tears, but they wouldn’t come.
“I can’t be with you anymore.” Jamie was crying now, and she shrugged her shoulders waiting for me to chase her, but I couldn’t. She turned around and walked away. I just watched her go. I couldn’t say anything. She never looked back.
I sat down on the curb and waited for her to come back, but she never did.
There was a knock at my door, and before I responded, Marlow entered.
She flopped herself down on my bed, and I sat up recoiling away from her. I tucked my knees up to my chest.
I waited for her long, apologetic speech. I knew it was just a matter of time.
She cleared her throat. “Can you drive me to the store?” she asked.
“The store. Can you take me?”
“I guess. What for?”
“I need to get something to drink.”
“We have water.”
“I guess,” I said. “Are you going to wear overalls?”
“Do you not like them?”
“No,” I said.
“I just don’t.”
“Oh,” she said. “Then I’ll change.”
We drove to the gas station a few miles up the road. We both went in and bought cigarettes.
She asked, “You wanna get some scratch offs?”
“Because we might win money.”
“Or we might lose it.”
“But we could win,” she said.
I shrugged, and we bought two scratch offs.
In the car, we each smoked from our new packs as lottery losers.
“It was worth a shot,” Marlow said, inhaling and leaning against the headrest.
“I guess,” I said, exhaling.
That night I met AJ in the tree house. He squeezed me when I climbed through the hole in the floor.
“How’s the sibling life?” he asked.
I asked, “Was Jackson mad?”
“No,” he said, “It was busy today. He told me he was just worried about you, but I took it off his mind after we got off.” AJ winked.
“I’m sure you did. Have you seen Jamie lately?”
“No, why? Did that bitch try to call you?”
“No, I’ve just been thinking about her.”
“Don’t you always?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“What’s your sister like?”
“I don’t know.”
“I just met her.”
I traced the cracks in the floor of the tree house.
“Are you okay?” AJ asked.
“I guess,” I said.
AJ pulled out a bag of Twizzlers, and we ate.
One night at two in the morning, Marlow was leaning over my bed, shaking me awake. “C’mon. You gotta see this.”
I followed her sleepily down the hall to her room.
She pointed to the front yard. “I’ve been watching for the past two weeks. Just wait.”
I stood waiting for several minutes. “Okay, I’m going back to bed.”
“No, no look.”
Mom scrambled across the yard to a car parked on the other side of the street. As soon as she got into the passenger seat, the car coasted into drive and then sped away.
“Where the hell is she going?”
“She sleeps with Mr. Pitman,” I said, yawning.
Marlow gasped. “Mr. Pitman? He was always so nice.”
“Because Mom was blowing him on the side.”
Marlow giggled, but I didn’t think it was funny.
“How long has this been happening?”
“A long time,” I said. I walked out of the room and back to my bed. Marlow followed.
“Shouldn’t we tell Dad?”
I shrugged. “He has his secrets, too.” I sat down on the bed.
“Like what?” Marlow joined me on the bed.
I got up and pulled back my curtain. Marlow looked out. Dad was sneaking across the backyard with his flashlight towards his tiny work shed close to the tree with the tree house.
“What the hell is he doing?”
Dad entered the tiny shed, and then exited quickly. He carried a bottle of vodka back towards the house.
“Goodnight,” I said, closing the curtain.
“Wait,” she said. “Do they know?”
“I’m sure they do.”
“How do you know?”
“They’ve had lots of practice pretending their problems don’t exist.”
Marlow was quiet. She sat on my bed running her fingers through the bottom ends of her hair that spilled down from the left side of her head.
Her voice was nothing more than a whisper. “They don’t have any pictures of me.”
“Did you expect them to?”
“Do you remember me?” she asked.
“What do you remember?”
“That you ran away and never came back.”
Marlow dropped her face to her hands, and her shoulders shook. I didn’t know how to deal with crying. I sat down on the bed about a foot away from her wondering how to comfort people. I thought about calling her blossom or putting a hand on her shoulder, but that never helped me. So I just sat there, and we just were.
“I never meant to never come back,” she said.
“You ruined them,” I said.
Marlow’s face was riddled with pain and confusion.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“You ruined them.”
“They could never love me because you left,” I said, “How could they love a second daughter when the first one abandoned them? How could they love each other? How could they love themselves?”
“I didn’t mean for it to happen.” She repeated over and over again while she wept on my bed. “I didn’t mean for it happen. I didn’t mean for it to happen.”
While Marlow cried, my phone beeped. Jamie sent me a text. I miss you. My heart leapt to my throat, and my fingers danced across the keys, but I clicked off the screen and set my phone down.
“Are you better now?” I asked. “I figured you left because you weren’t well. Growing up, I thought you died.”
“I am, I am, I am.” She was still crying.
“Is that why you left? Because you weren’t well?”
“It’s complicated,” she said. “I wasn’t happy, and I was doing drugs. And I thought I was in love.” My mind swept quickly to Jamie.
“Was I what?” she asked. Her heavy makeup was stained down her cheeks.
“Were you in love?”
“No,” she said, “But at the time, I knew I was. And maybe that’s why I did it. Because even the thought of love can make you do crazy things.”
“When did you realize you weren’t?”
“When he left me,” she said.
“Do you want a Twizzler?” I asked. “They help with heartbreak.”
We ate Twizzlers together. Marlow continued to cry in my bed until she fell asleep next to me. As I listened to the sound of her breathing, I picked up my phone and deleted Jamie’s message.
Marlow and I plotted to sabotage our parent’s secret habits.
I dipped into the money I’d been saving to move and bought a video camera. At the hardware store, we bought a knife to puncture Mr. Pitman’s tires, motion cameras to expose Mom’s front lawn escape, a security camera to set up in Dad’s shed to capture the look on his face when he discovered his bottles empty, and two hoses to make sure they’d be soaked to the bone in their own truths.
It took weeks of precise planning to make sure we’d capture them at just the right moments. In the front yard, while Mom and Dad were away for the day, we put up the motion detector lights all over the yard. When Marlow decided that you could see the lights from space, we moved on to the next task.
We picked Dad’s shed lock with a bobby pin. Inside we found racks and racks of bottles stacked from the floor to the ceiling. We spent an hour taking the alcohol out of his shed and pouring the contents down the drain. We left the empty bottles in the racks and set up the night-vision security camera in the corner.
Marlow and I spent the rest of the day poking holes in the hoses, and AJ helped. He was the one who suggested the soap.
We placed one hose across the backyard, where one had to cross over it to get from the backdoor to the shed, and we put one in the front yard, where one would have to cross to get from the front door to the road. After the hoses were properly punctured, we spent the rest of the day, littering the front and back yards with powdered soap. We blended it into the grass and dirt. Finally, we were ready for the real deal.
We recruited AJ to help us set the plan in motion. That night AJ hid in the bushes across the street from my house, and Marlow hid on the side of the house. She was next to the spigot for both the front and backyard hoses.
“Everyone set?” I asked into the walky-talky.
“Yes,” Marlow said, giggling.
“Affirmative,” AJ said.
Right on time, Mom snuck out of the front door. I recorded her from Marlow’s bedroom window. Mom looked both ways before stepping briskly out into the yard. The first motion censored light turned on causing Mom to jump and shriek. Her movement caused a second light from the other direction to turn on. Then a third light. Then a fourth. Mom had both of her hands in the air, dazed and blinded.
“Turn them off!” Mr. Pitman said. His car window was rolled down, and I zoomed in on his face.
In Mom’s confusion she was frozen.
“Cue the water hose, Marlow,” I said into the walky-talky.
A few moments later, the front yard hose sprang to life. Water squirted in all directions from the holes, and soap began to foam. Mom moved towards Mr. Pitman’s car and fell straight into the grass.
“Help,” she said in an attempted whisper.
Mr. Pitman cursed and climbed out of the car. He ran up the sidewalk, trying to pull her up, but getting pulled into the sudsy mush of the front lawn.
“Cue the tire popping, AJ,” I said into the walky-talky.
AJ rolled out of the bushes across the street. He ran swiftly, hunched to the ground towards Mr. Pitman’s car parked on the curb. AJ wedged his knife into the sidewall of Mr. Pitman’s rear passenger tire. I captured the car sink in defilation on camera. AJ ran back to the safety of the neighbor’s bushes.
Mr. Pitman and Mom had no choice but to half roll, half crawl to the street. They were both soaked with water and lathered with bubbles. Mr. Pitman pulled Mom up from the ground. They ran to the car, started the engine, and shifted hard into drive. I followed the car to the corner with my camera where it rolled to a stop with its flat tire. Mr. Pitman got out yelling, “Shit, shit, shit.”
Giggling, I ran down the hall to my room where I had a clear view of where Dad would make his debut appearance on camera. I opened my laptop to the shed security camera feed and pressed record.
“Prepare for part two,” I said into the walky-talky.
Right on time, Dad stumbled into the backyard with his flashlight. I closed in on his face as he walked into the shed.
“He’s in the shed,” Marlow confirmed on channel 3. All of us shared a giggle over the radio. I watched the shed camera as Dad pillaged through his empty bottles.
“What the hell?” I saw him mouth. He opened a bottle from the top shelf and tilted it towards his mouth. Discovering it was empty like all the others, he smashed it against the wall. He overturned an entire shelf, shattering half of his supply.
In a rage, he exited the shed with his fists clenched.
“Cue the hose,” I said to the walky-talky.
Moments later, Dad was rolling around in the mushy, bubbling backyard. He was cursing and yelling. I recorded him as he crawled to the front porch steps. I clicked off the camera and ran to the front door to let in AJ and Marlow. The three of us retreated to my room to bask in our victory.
AJ, Marlow, and I ate Twizzlers on my bed. I fell asleep in Marlow’s arms.
At dinner, Marlow was the only one who really talked. Mom and Dad replied with cheerful encouragements to Marlow, and I just listened most of the time. I liked the way Marlow’s voice sounded inside the house. It was as if her presence filled a room.
Marlow said to me, “Pass the spinach, and why do you look so sad?”
“I’m not sad,” I said, passing the spinach.
“You look like you are,” she said.
“It’s because her girlfriend left her,” Dad said, nodding.
“I told her she needs to date a man,” Mom said.
“You’re a lesbian?” Marlow asked.
Mom gasped. “No, she’s not a lesbian. She’s just a girl. She doesn’t even know what any of that stuff means.”
“Yes, I’m a lesbian,” I said.
Marlow shrugged. “My best friend in rehab was a lesbian.”
“Don’t encourage her,” Mom said.
Marlow smirked and turned to me. “You should love anybody you want to love.”
“Anyone that’s a man,” Mom said. “Because homosexuality is a sin.”
“Isn’t committing adultery a sin?” I asked.
Mom dropped her glass, spilling water on the table. Everyone was quiet.
“I’ll get a towel,” Dad said, leaving the dinning room. He returned and mopped up the mess.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, finally.
I placed the DVD I’d made of Mom and Dad’s fiascos on the table and pushed it towards her.
Marlow giggled, and Mom’s cheeks flushed.
“Does Mr. Pitman fuck better than Dad?” I asked.
Marlow burst into laughter, and I smiled.
“Shut up!” Dad slammed his fist against the table. “You’ve been cheating?” He said, turning to Mom.
“Don’t act like you don’t know,” she said.
I said, “You better go get a few extra bottles from your shed.” I pushed the DVD towards him.
Dad turned around in furry, his arm back like he was about to hit me. I didn’t move. Marlow stopped laughing.
“It was you,” he said.
Dad’s arm trembled. Mom said, “David, put your arm down.”
“No,” he said.
“I want a divorce,” Mom said.
Dad dropped his hand and turned to Mom.
“I have the papers,” she said. “I just need you to sign them.”
Dad sat down. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“I just found out the other night,” she said.
“That you want a divorce?”
“That I don’t love you anymore.”
Marlow held my hand under the table.
Dad began to cry. “I thought if she came home,” Dad said, “that you might love me again.” Mom frowned, and then she cried, too. She got up from the table and held Dad. “I need help,” Dad cried. “I need help. I need help. I need rehab.”
Mom held his face. “We’ll get you help.”
Marlow cried tears of joy. I ran from the room and stopped at the door where I had first heard Mom and Dad talk of Marlow’s imprisonment. I found the crevasse in the wall that had cut me, and I rubbed my hand against it, remembering the pain.
I shrank to the floor feeling just as alone as I was when I was fifteen. Marlow called out for me. I got up and ran as fast as I could for the tree house. I climbed up the ladder and collapsed into a ball on the floor. I was shaking and water came out of my eyes. I’d never cried before.
Marlow stood at the base of the tree. “Can I come up?” she asked.
“If you come up, I’ll jump out and kill myself,” I said.
“Okay,” she said, “I won’t come up. Will you come down?”
Mom and Dad were standing behind her now. They were holding hands, but still teary eyed.
“Come down,” she said. “We’ll talk.”
“I want to help,” Marlow said.
I groaned. “I’m not coming down from this tree until everyone stops acting crazy!”
Marlow said, “You’re acting crazy.”
“I am not,” I said. I stuck my tongue out.
“Let me come up,” Marlow said.
“Where were you?” I screamed. I stood at the window of the tree house. “Where were all of you when I needed you? Where were you when people called me crazy for thinking I had a sister? Where were you when I got my hair cut off in the locker room for looking at another girl? Where were you when I got my heart broken?”
I was in hysterics.
Marlow climbed up the ladder of the tree house, and she sat cross-legged on the floor.
“I know I can’t make up for not being here,” she said. “But I can try.”
I shook my head at her.
“Norma,” she said. “I wasn’t there for you before because I was a coward. Just like Mom and Dad. But I’m here now, and I’m not leaving. I’ll never leave you again.”
I crawled to her and cried in her lap while she petted my hair.
“Do you want a cigarette?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “I quit.”
“Just now,” I said.
Marlow pulled out Twizzlers from her overall pockets. “Want one?” She offered me one, and I took it.
“They help with heartbreak,” I told her.
When Marlow and I came down the ladder, Mom and Dad were sitting on the porch steps. Dad was signing the divorce papers in his lap. I sat down next to Mom, and Marlow sat down next to Dad.
Marlow passed out Twizzlers, and we ate them as the leaves rustled against the tree house.