A Chronology of the Alternate Ways I Wish I’d Lost You
We’re arguing in a department store two days before Christmas Eve. Our parents fuss without fire, all stretched-out-sighs and quiet condescension. We argue openly. You choose a plush baby doll for our cousin’s Christmas gift, with a stitched mouth that can’t smile and a white dress like a ghost. I shove it away, demanding we buy the Barbie makeup head instead. You start to weep, and Mom hushes you with promises of sugar cookies if you pretend to be happy until we leave.
The speakers play the Christmas song about marshmallows, and you declare you hate it, so I sing along. Our fight is all lip, no heart. Our parents are all teeth, no guts. No eyes either. They don’t watch as we move through aisles without them, weaving between clearance sweaters and thick wool coats, wordlessly beginning a game of hide and seek.
I hide first and slip my body into a fur jacket, shielding my face in white fluff. When you find me, you undo the jacket’s top button to reveal my glare, stick your tongue out in victory, then race away. I count, escape, search. You’re nowhere. Not crouching behind boots in the shoe section, or lingering near the ladies who spray perfume, hoping they’ll spray you too. Not with our parents, who’ve moved their argument to the register, a teddy bear for our cousin in hand.
“Find your sister,” they tell me, and I tell them I’ve tried. I’ve looked through every aisle, even knocked on the changing room doors and hollered your name.
The three of us search, and Mom tries not to draw attention, pretending she’s just browsing. Dad’s face purples like a plum as he calls your name. I spot you first.
You’ve slipped into a glossy advertisement, a poster that fills half a wall. You’re standing next to another family, wearing a matching festive pajama set and a big grin. You’re all holding mugs of cocoa with mountains of marshmallows, which makes me laugh, even through the tight terror constricting my throat. In the background, a golden dog sits on a couch with a candy-cane-shaped bone hanging from its mouth.
A tree the size of our hatchback perches before a roaring fireplace, so brilliant and bright I can feel its warmth as I reach for you. I grasp for your hand, but it’s flat. Unreachable. I wail your name, begging you to come back, but your smile never falters.
We’re late for the train to visit our father, who lives three hours away in a two-bedroom-one-bathroom-no-breathing-room flat. We share the second bedroom, but it doubles as an office, so we split a blow-up bed and listen to the hum of his computer through the night.
On our most recent visit, a three-day weekend that Dad packed with guilt gifts and Little Debbies, you told me you’d fallen in love last summer at camp with someone from Milwaukee. Shakespeare love, you said, not Hallmark. The kind of love that ends bloody. I nodded like I understood the difference.
I’m determined to become you. You are two years older, five inches taller, twelve million times cooler. You doodle shooting stars by your name on all your trigonometry homework, kiss boys on the soccer team, and talk back to Mom, even when she threatens to ground you until next year. Even when she really does. You’re grounded today, so you don’t have your phone to call Dad and tell him we’re running late.
We’re blistering our feet as we bolt down Main Ave, yelling the whole way. People shake their heads, and some call after us with demands to slow down, but their words disappear in the winds whipping through our ponytails. My lungs are stress balls, squeezed too tight. My stomach is loose and lurching. You’ve inherited our father’s ease of leaving; you sail ahead, effortless.
In our school uniforms, you’re a smear of Viking green and bleach white, slipping between bodies as you dart toward the station. You make it first, just as the train doors are groaning closed.
“I’ll hold it for you,” you call back at me, then disappear ahead, squeezing your body through the narrow opening.
It’s the wrong train, but we don’t know that yet. It’s an overnight ride, on its way to Somewhere Worth Going. You can’t pry the doors open to let me in. You stand before the window, palming the glass, yelling that you’ll come back. You don’t, because where you land is somewhere worth staying too.
Your Milwaukee crush moves there for college. The two of you fall in Hallmark love and run a Christmas tree farm. In your cabin, you reserve me a corner with a blow-up mattress. I always think I’ll visit, but I never make the train.
During your sophomore year of college, your blonde hair starts to redden like autumn leaves. You’re a fashion major with minors in French and philosophy. You wear stupid hats and glittery go-go boots. Big owl necklaces and purple lipstick. I’ve never been so jealous as I am of your roommates, who get to raid your closet and rant about lovers and see you daily.
Even though you still live in the same town, your visits are rare and clipped. Each one, you morph into some new version of my sister, and I try to decipher whether something’s been lost or gained within you. Tonight we’re huddled in a booth at Olive Garden with Mom, halfway through our second breadstick basket. In the glossy chain restaurant lights, your hair is the color of tomato cream sauce, but you swear you haven’t dyed it. Mom says it’s been red underneath the blonde all along.
You don’t talk much as we dine, and don’t linger after dessert because you’ve got a thing. You’re president of the Stargazing club, and there’s a comet coming for the first time in 200 years. On the drive home without you, Mom worries aloud over your wilting frame and dark circles. She spends the night preparing enough casseroles to overflow your freezer and I spend it outside looking up, waiting for a flash of light that never comes.
You invite me to your apartment for a Halloween party. You don a handmade Ariel costume with spray-painted soda can scales and a shell bra. Your hair is stoplight red. You swear it’s turning on its own, no matter your shampoo. Hair dye won’t stick. Your voice trembles as you confess this, and I offer to help, but you shake your head. You’re learning to live with it. I don’t believe you, but I miss you too much to argue.
Your friends call me your shadow and hand me plastic cups of cider. They pull me from your side and we dance to Taylor Swift and gorge on candy, shrieking lyrics with our cheap-chocolate-coated tongues. You linger in the corner and offer big thumbs up when I catch your eye, but your expression’s too brittle to be believable. It could pull away in sheets if I tried.
As the party slows, you tell me you need fresh air, so we descend the slick apartment steps into the night. You blow with the wind like your feet aren’t planted right, you bend when the breeze gets too strong. With each step, red leaves flutter from your hair and fall around my feet. I grab your hand and tug you back.
You miss Thanksgiving, my birthday, then Christmas. When Mom calls to ask if you’re depressed, you snap and hang up. She sends me to your apartment with a Christmas dinner plate, but it’s empty. You’re gone. As I huff back toward the parking lot, a tree branch scratches my arm. When I take another step, it clutches the fluffy hood of my parka.
You’ve taken root and lost your leaves, withered through the winter. I scour the internet for a cure and spend each afternoon with my back to your trunk, telling you stories. Mom thinks this sorrow is your nature, but I can see your bark gaining strength, your branches steadying even in the strongest winds.
You pass old and peaceful in your sleep, such a dull way to die that it would kill you again if you knew. Your funeral overflows with unfamiliar faces, and each stares at me like I’m the ghost. You lived without loneliness, never doubted you were loved. We give slam poems instead of speeches. We throw novelty keychains into your grave instead of carnations. You leave your fortune to me in the will: a rare book collection, a custom perfume that smells like moths and mulberries, and a top hat too big for my head. I wear it anyway.
I enter a Victorian-like mourning ritual, which would crack you up so hard that your little old lady glasses would fall off your face. Each day I don a black velour sweatsuit and push my walker around my neighborhood. I save a bite of every meal for your spirit, but no offering tempts you back. When my children call, I tell them stories of you. I have thousands of tales, so I never have to repeat any.
I search the phone books for Hell’s number, then Heaven’s, but I only get a dial tone. I stare in mirrors hoping your face will look back at me, but I never see it. I was supposed to become you, but I never did. Every day, I curl up in my bed alone, burying my body beneath quilts. Something pulls the covers back from my face and flees each time before I can catch it.
On my millionth mourning walk, I realize I’ve lost my shadow. No matter how the light hits me, I leave no mark. I wonder if I’ve become a ghost, but then I see my shadow crouching behind a tree, peeking out at me.
I’ve found you. You turn your back and begin to count.
Regan Puckett writes short and strange fiction from the Ozarks. Her writing can be found in Catapult, Fractured Literary, and elsewhere. She’s currently hard at work on her debut novel. Find her at: https://www.reganpuckettwrites.com/