When I was 12 I walked into my living room at the exact moment my sister stepped off a chair. The rope snapped up around her chin like headgear. She broke three of her teeth when her jaw hit the edge of my mother’s antique trunk.
“Are you alright?”
My lips were blue and sticky around a splintered popsicle stick. Pieces of my hair were stuck to my neck. My thighs touched in humid moisture under my pajama shorts.
She looked silly down there on the rug, curled around the end of the trunk like a rag doll. The curtain blew over the chair, still upright in the middle of the room. It didn’t belong there. It did not match. Mother would say something if she were here.
My sister spat blood at me in response.
I looked up from my lap. I couldn’t see who was speaking. It could be my mother. It could be anyone. The light clicked on.
“Abigail, why on earth are you sitting in the dark?”
My mother always said things like this. Why on earth. Like everything that everyone did was excessively absurd. I blinked at her like a chameleon.
She was still stooped over the lampshade, her hand a spidery shadow through the fabric. Her face became pinched and uncomfortable. She spoke softly, even though I was the only person there. Or maybe I wasn’t.
“Abby. Abby, it’s dark in here.”
I looked about, the yellow bulb making everything look like scotch tape and glue.
“No it isn’t.”
My mother straightened her spine. I could hear every notch click into place, like a puppet. My eyes were dry from not allowing myself to blink.
“Your father said he had to bring you home from school today.”
“He picked me up. He didn’t bring me home.”
“Abigail, stop it.”
“I was cold.”
She left me sitting on the couch and disappeared into the kitchen, sighing. I heard her heavy winter coat on a chair. It made a fabric noise. Zip.
“You were cold.”
She appeared again in the living room, with fewer layers on, running her knobby hands through her hair. I didn’t understand why she was telling me what I had just told her. I didn’t say anything.
“Abiga-Abby. You can’t leave school sick because you are cold.”
She sat down in the chair across the carpet from me. I stared at her black loafers.
“I didn’t leave sick. I left because I was cold.”
My mother put her face in her hands for a moment. She did it so fast I wasn’t really sure it happened at all. She went upstairs and shut a door. I heard her talking to my father. I knew it was him because her voice wasn’t nice anymore. I looked down at my lap to finish my literature assignment. It was upside down. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t read it earlier.
The next week I was allowed to see my sister in the hospital. It had been four years since I had to sit in the dentist’s office, waiting for her to have teeth again. She hadn’t become any more pleasant over years in treatment and cookie-cutter wings of hospital wards.
Evelyn leaned over the table on her forearms and looked up at me through straight, black bangs.
I twisted my hands in my lap.
“Mom let you come alone?”
She laughed a smoker’s bark. Tipping back in her chair, she threw her head back to look at the ceiling. I could see the bandages on her pale wrists.
“Like dad has a say in shit.”
She ground her teeth for a moment while I stared at her. She made the tension disappear because she didn’t exist to make it in the first place. She wavered somewhere out of reality for me. Between life and death was too cliche.
“Don’t fuck up your life, Abby.”
I leaned back a little. Her words were sharp. She let the legs of her chair slam down on the tile and stared into my face like she was trying to find something.
“Don’t be this.”
She drank a bottle of bleach the next day.
“I’m so sorry Marilyn.”
“Such a beautiful girl.”
“If there is anything I can do-”
I pressed my stocking feet into the plush maroon carpet of the funeral home. The building’s first floor was broken into two rooms, and a central hallway divided everything in half. One room had my sister’s casket. The other had me. It was dark, the only light coming from the gap in the doorway.
The mourners were talking to my mother in the hallway. She was crying. I could hear her sniffling.
Tearless. I picked up a red and white mint off the tray next to me.
I turned, my hair whipping around my neck. A boy stood in the doorway, looking uncomfortable in a suit and tie. I didn’t recognize him.
He turned on a table lamp and pulled a pea coat off the wall hook. He looked over his shoulder at me. I looked back at my feet.
“I’m Mark. I live here.”
“In a funeral home?”
He laughed at my incredulous tone. He explained the mortician-family living arrangement. I shivered at the thought of sleeping above cadavers.
“Do you smoke?”
Mark was holding out a cigarette to me. My sister used to smoke. I never did.
I followed him to the back door in my stockings and without a coat. It was dark outside and there was a thin layer of snow on the black driveway. I lit a match with the small book Mark handed to me and took a drag of my first cigarette. The menthol went down my throat like a foil ball. I wiggled my toes when my head felt lighter than the frigid air blowing through my thin dress.
I packed my cigarettes against the steering wheel of my shitty Elantra. Snow streaked across my windshield, fragmented chunks sliding between the gaps in the rubber wipers. Dry heat from the vents made my throat burn. My cell phone vibrated a bright blue in the cup holder, quarters jingling.
“Abby, it’s dad. Just making sure you’re okay. It started snowing here.”
“It’s snowing. And I’m fine.”
I ripped off the cellophane from the box and lit a cigarette. I listened to my father for a few minutes before losing concentration in the yellow lights on the blurring pavement in front of me.
“I’ll be home in an hour.”
“Call if there’s traffic.”
I hung up and dropped my phone into the adjacent bucket seat.
Mark stood on the porch of the funeral home, watching me walk toward him.
I hugged him, breathing in the formaldehyde off his coat.
“How was your first semester?”
“Shitty. How are your dead people?”
I sat on the sagging top step and lit a cigarette. I stared across the street into the tinsel-framed deli window. Someone was scooping tuna onto a roll.
“Have you been home yet?”
“No, I came right here. My dad called earlier. I told him I would be home in an hour. A half hour ago.”
Mark was looking at me out of the corner of his eye. I became self-conscious of my appearance. The skin under my nose burned. I folded my arms across my stomach. My hipbones dug into my skinny forearms. I made a cognitive effort to blink normally.
“Your eyes are glassy.”
“I should get going. I still have to get Christmas presents.”
“Christmas is a few days away still.”
“I know. Bye.”
I stood up, hugged him again, feeling his palms on my shoulder blades, and got back into my warm sedan. I drove home without paying attention, letting my muscle memory drive the car. My palms were slippery on the plastic.
“Abby, can you help me with this?”
I wandered into the kitchen. My mother was standing in front of the oven, a Christmas turkey steaming on the stovetop. The smell nauseated me. I stirred the pasta at her direction. She was talking to me but I couldn’t figure out the words. I wondered absently if she was speaking English.
I snapped out of my blank stare. My mother was staring at me. Her face had defined wrinkles. She looked aged. When did that happen?
“I asked you how your classes were this semester.”
“Oh. They’re fine.”
“Well I would appreciate some more information. We are paying for it you know.”
“Do you not want to?”
My mother sighed and turned away from me, her lumpy Christmas sweater taking up too much space. I narrowed my eyes at it.
“Come on, Abby, throw us a bone.”
My father spoke from the living room. I could hear the ruffling of tissue paper. Throw us a bone? I detested idioms.
“My classes are fine. They are requirements, so they aren’t very exciting.”
I strained the pasta, the steam beading moisture on my neck and cheeks. I shook the colander and dumped the noodles back into the pot. I left the humid kitchen and went back upstairs. It was darker and cooler on the second level of my house. I passed my sister’s closed bedroom door.
Don’t be this.
I stopped and turned. The door was painted white, the tape marks still visible from Eve’s warning signs. I reached out for the handle. Her room was empty, save for a box spring in the corner. The carpet was still indented from furniture. I breathed in the stale air, trying to catch any scent of her that still lingered in the fabric. There was nothing.
Don’t fuck up your life, Abby.
I jumped and spun in a full circle, goosebumps racing from my scalp down to my ankles. I darted out the door and closed it behind me. I shivered against the cool wall in the hallway. I entered my room, bags still packed and in the middle of the floor. I hadn’t unpacked. I didn’t want to. I liked pretending that my house was a bed and breakfast, that I was a returning customer that had grown to be a part of the family over the years. I sat on my bed and stared out the window until the sun set, a bright orange against the pale bedroom walls.
“I’m not, Eve. I’m not.”
I spoke to my frosted window.
“I heard Eve yesterday.”
Mark was bent over his stereo, sliding CDs into the multiple-disc dock. He pressed play before coming to sit next to me on the floor. His hair had gotten too long. It hung in his face like some kind of moody model.
“What do you mean?”
“I heard her say ‘don’t be this’ and ‘don’t fuck up your life.’”
“Like, in your head or out loud?”
“I don’t know.”
Mark sat next to me in silence. “Dear Prudence” started its slow guitar introduction. He reached behind me and held up a blunt. I smiled at it. An hour later the room was filled with smoke and the vanilla stench of cigar. We leaned against a pillow barricade that blocked the bottom of his bookshelf and let The White Album play all the way through. Mark put his hand on top of mine.
“Are you okay?”
I pulled into the cemetery a few hours later, making tire tracks in the dusting of snow on the narrow path. I parked at the dead end and tromped through the inches of snow to my sister’s tombstone. I sat on top of it, letting my feet dangle above the frozen blanket of whiteness that expanded over the acres of death.
“Why did you do it, Eve?”
I tilted my head back to the expansive grey that was the sky. I thought about the last few things my sister had said to me. Don’t be this. Don’t be what? In a hospital? Alive? The last option was morbidly appealing. I never considered killing myself before. Sitting on Eve’s remains seemed an appropriate place to start. Don’t be alive.
Christmas morning dawned with a mildly clear sky and hardened blocks of road salt lining every street. I sat in the living room with my parents, trying to appear interested in presents and holiday cheer. I wandered around my house in a daze until relatives filtered through the front door, bringing melting patches of snow into the house that I stepped in every time I changed my socks. I was showered with praise for school and my appearance, thinner than last time I had been with family.
“Grab me a beer, will you, Abby?”
My grandfather barked from the couch, his voice full of phlegm and destroyed esophagus skin. I handed him a bottle, frosted from the depths of the refrigerator. He motioned for me to sit next to him. We watched the antics of my family like a soap opera.
“You’re a good kid, Abby.”
“And I’m not just saying it. I know a lot of these assholes just bullshit you around, but I mean it. You’re a good kid. Don’t fuck up your life.”
The couch fell away and the living room spiraled into a black hole. It swallowed the Christmas tree and the presents and my family. It was just me and grandpa. Don’t fuck up your life. Don’t fuck up your life. Don’t fuck up your life.
“What do you mean, grandpa? Please tell me.”
I had a burning somewhere in my chest. It spread like fire down to my fingers, which trembled on my knee caps. I needed this answer. It was more important than school and drugs and Mark. I stared into his face, the wrinkles around his eyes, the hard wall across his irises. He turned to face me.
“I mean don’t listen to these jackasses when they tell you how to live your life.”
He jerked his thumb toward the huddle of aunts, uncles and cousins filtering in and out of the kitchen.
“If you’re happy, you’re happy. If you’re not, do something about it. But nothing you don’t want to, you hear me? They tell you to stay in school, but if you hate it, do something else. No one’ll look down on you for it. I won’t, anyway.”
He took a long swig of beer, the top foaming as he put it down on the coffee table next to the coaster. I habitually moved the glass bottle onto the fabric circle. I sat back against the tan plush of my couch. Do something about it. Do what? What would make me happy? Sleep. I like sleep. My mind wandered back to death, eternal rest.
I hugged him sideways, his thick, calloused hand clapping down on the pointy tip of my shoulder.
“Grab me another beer, will you?”
I looked down onto my nightstand. The glass of water rippled slightly. A normal glass of water. I upended the bottle of sleeping pills into the cup. A glass of death. I picked it up, the glass steaming instantly from contact with my skin. I stepped over to my window, knowing I only had minutes until the pills started to dissolve. I set it on the windowsill. The sun was setting, a bloody crescent over the hills surrounding my town. I looked back into my room. My bags were pushed into a corner, still full. My bed was made, pillows arranged in height order, and my alarm clock set on the exact minute from my cell phone. I looked back at the cup. The pills on the bottom of the small pile were beginning to disintegrate.
Don’t be this. Don’t fuck up your life, Abby.
Can’t fuck it up if I’m dead, can I? I picked up the cup.
If you’re not happy, do something about it.
I’m not happy. This will do something about it. I set my lips on the edge of the glass.
You’re a good kid, Abby.
Fuck. I poured the glass on the carpet, cold water splashing over my bare feet. The pills landed in the spaces between my toes, lined up like tiny circle soldiers. I stepped on them, mashing their semi-solidness into the fibers of the rug. I picked up the last whole one and set it on my tongue, swallowing it dry.
Across from the window, I set my alarm for the next morning and crawled under my sheets, still in jeans and a T-shirt. I watched the neon red numbers on my clock change until I fell asleep.