|Onward! Home | Contents | Authors||Wordrunner eChapbooks | April 2020 | echapbook.com|
When she told the story, Marlena would always start with the same line: “There were two places I felt at home. At least until my sister disappeared."
The first was the renthouse, which had three bedrooms: one where Lily slept, one for that quiet, uncomfortable roommate, and one empty, offering only a futon and a nightstand. On weekends, Marlena liked to come and jimmy a window or two, climb inside and settle down on the futon. On weekends, she could pretend to be five years older. A housemate that lived minimally and took no shit. But tonight, every room, every horizontal surface, was occupied with dancing, drinking, sex, other things maybe—Marlena’s makeshift bed, she knew, was engaged with some Friday evening business. And so she came through the front door instead, a rare occurrence: no reason to sneak around when there was a boy lying motionless in the front lawn and a throng of girls filming their night on the porch with shaky hands. Marlena pushed past them all and wedged herself through the door frame, scanning faces of the partygoers for her older sister, Lily. Among the dancers who swayed and sloshed beer froth onto their clothes, she recognized coworkers of Lily’s, some ex-girlfriends, and childhood companions, and even an old teacher. Marlena knew the characters of her sister’s story better than she did her own. Some turned to wave at her, press drunken kisses atop her head, and with a false grimace on her mouth, she leaned in. Of course she did.
“Where’s Lily?” The question came out gently, soft in her throat though she’d meant it to be forceful. An annoyance was growing within her, one that demanded her sister and her clean futon, one that despised how the frequency of these parties took those comforts away. And it was a special Friday, too. Good Friday, meant for fasting and abstinence and sisterly bonding over terrible parents. But no. The few friends before her—three old co-workers, all in Lily’s good graces—peered at Marlena first with glassy eyes, then with recognition. They shrugged at each other in a circle. Mirrors, all the same.
“Lily? Shit, I don’t know, do you know?”
“Haven’t seen her in the living room, and I’ve been standing here for a while.”
“Lily, Lily, where could you be?” The girl sang this and laughed, resting her hand on one of the boy’s shoulders. The other boy looked pained. And with that, Marlena knew the conversation was over. She straightened her backpack and said her thanks. Beyond them, in the depths of the living room, were a mix of college students and older people who teemed around the tiny couch and television. There were partiers as old as their parents there, but with sagging faces and yellowing teeth. Marlena could hardly see the opposite wall where the household painting of The Last Supper hung, and the kitchen counter was obscured by plastic cups and beer cans. Trying to maneuver between everyone, all at least a head taller, seemed pointless. Trying to squeeze back into the hall to the bedrooms would be even worse. Marlena pictured it, from previous experience, as lined with couples consuming one another, hands and tongues everywhere. She exhaled and inched away, further into the mass of drinkers and smokers. Perhaps closer, somehow, to her sister.
Marlena didn’t come to these parties often, not with school and her parents bogging her down. Nonetheless, she earned very few stares in her schoolwear and short-limbed, boyish frame. This was Lily’s house, and she was Lily’s sister, so it didn’t matter that she was fifteen and looked it. She could drink, if she wanted. She smoked when it was offered to her, pale cigarettes the length of her finger and the taste of raisins. The college kids sometimes filmed the parties and would aim their cameras down, zooming right in to Marlena’s scowling face (a phony frown, really, because she loved being seen). And even on days like these, when Marlena wanted to be alone with Lily, these parties were okay because she belonged.
A tug on her backpack strap. Honeyed breath down her cheek. Marlena turned, anticipating her sister, but looked up at a pale face.
“Lily isn’t here,” said the boy. Well, not a boy, like many of the others. A man. She couldn’t remember this one. She couldn’t place his wide eyes and intensity, and she felt a shiver of disgust in lieu of recollection. Ex-boyfriend maybe? Her eyes dipped to his shirt, a familiar emblem of a nineties band emblazoned upon it, and she knew: the roommate. It wasn’t disgust she felt then, but anxiety. Seeing him was unusual, but his appearances scared her shitless. Once, when she was sneaking into the renthouse late—a fight with her mother, hair torn out in clumps—he moved in the darkness of the backyard and touched her shoulder. We ought to give you a housekey, he whispered. I thought you were a thief. His palm, down to her elbow. In his other hand, a pocketknife glinting in the light of her upraised phone. She couldn’t remember his face or his name, but she never forgot that.
“Where’d she go then? Isn’t this her party?” Marlena said, shifting away. She gave a little tug at her hair. He smiled at her, and it was friendly enough. His arm dropped to his side, and he wrung his hands, somehow nothing like that memory.
“I think she went to get more ice or something. Gas station beer, maybe? I—I just saw you standing in all these people, and I felt bad to see you alone. Can I get you something?”
“No,” she said, “that’s okay. Maybe I’ll wait for her in her room.”
“I wouldn’t suggest it,” he laughed. The coldness between them thawed, and he leaned down, smelling both sickly sweet and of cleaning fluid. “I can clear out my room, if you have to do homework or something.”
“No,” she said, “that’s okay. It’s like midnight. I can wait.”
He smiled again, gestured weakly at the hordes of people around them. And then he turned, almost mechanically, and pushed through the crowd, though it seemed to give way at his touch. The college kids moved. The roommate was gone.
Marlena stood for a quiet five minutes before eyeing a can of beer, feeling that familiar desire to be seen. She swiped the can from its owner, who looked shocked, flatteringly surprised, and the people around them laughed. Marlena the showman tipped her head back and swallowed the poison whole, backpack still securely behind her like a good high schooler—the college kids filmed her, whooping, and Marlena heard them chatter about Lily, wondering where she was to see the spectacle. Crushing the can beneath her foot, she glanced around for another; and soon, a girl that looked just like her but with thick, spidery eyelashes squeezed through from the front door. Marlena turned to her and felt relief—or was it just the beer?—wash down her body, but she wasn’t much for moving in that sardine tin of a living room. Lily was almost empty-handed, only a small pipe raised triumphantly in the air, but Marlena heard her own name hissed from the crowd, like a warning. The pipe disappeared. Her sister stood on her tiptoes and found Marlena’s eyes.
“Baby!” she shouted, but as they watched each other, Marlena felt anger bubble inside her. She felt stupid in her backpack, stupid mashed up against all of Lily’s closest friends. Stupid as she thought about the roommate and his breath on her, stupid as the beer fizzed down her throat.
“The hell, Lily”—her voice was small and gross, even as she yelled over the din—"I needed you tonight. I texted you.”
“Baby!” Lily shouted again, and she swam through the crowd. “Honey, I know, I was out getting party favors. I didn’t think you’d come so quick.”
Marlena glowered up at her, dramatic as she spat on the floor at her feet. She shifted her backpack against her: a fighting gesture. “I had a bad day, and I needed you,” she repeated. “Why throw a party tonight?”
Lily fumbled at her pockets, elbowing people as she did, then reached for Marlena. “I know, I know. Sacrilege and all. Let’s get you to bed.”
Wet sounds, slurping sounds, came from the door of the “empty” bedroom, and Lily barged into the room and withdrew a half-dressed couple. “In you go,” she said to Marlena, who scraped at the futon with her nails as if to drag the germs away. She lay upon it, couch-style, lifting a blanket from the floor. Twenty minutes passed before the bedroom door reopened; Marlena couldn’t sleep, wouldn’t sleep, and the sound of her sister shocked her. Lily fell through the doorway with some stranger’s clothes draped loosely across her frame, a weird outfit she would never wear, something inherited through sex. Marlena had hardly a moment to squint at her. The futon upright didn’t deter Lily—she fell onto Marlena, nuzzled her shoulder with a sweaty forehead. Her clothing flattened against Marlena like an added blanket, the buttons of the shirt digging into her.
“Don’t be mad, don’t be mad.” Lily said it twice, thrice, a fourth muffled time.
“I’m not—where were—”
“I know you are, honey, it’s okay. I know you wanted to talk about shitty shit, and we still can, we can right now, right?”
Marlena didn’t answer, tense underneath her sister. Lily smelled rancid, and her body was fidgety. Her hand came up, pulled into the air by a puppeteer, and tapped against the head of the couch. “Let me make it a bed.”
But with the futon laid flat, Lily squirmed restlessly and hardly spoke. In moments she muttered an apology and was out into the party again. Marlena curled up, defeated, and raised a hand to the smallest of bald patches on the top of her head. A yank at her hair. She was sore with disappointment.
When she’d tell this story later, she’d talk about how uncomfortable she was in the living room, how much she wanted to talk to Lily about their mother, and she would focus on that unease. Lily, so elusive and so present, would sweep dramatically into the story, but those mentions of her would be short in the retelling. She’d tuck Marlena in, and make her breakfast the next morning, but Marlena would never see her sister again after she’d ducked through the back window, away from the smells and sounds of ham and pancakes, away from talking about the night before. And Marlena would tell her listeners that, as she passed through the driveway, the roommate sat in the bed of his truck, smoking a cigarette. He’d offered her one, which she’d irritably declined. None of it was dramatic, no. These moments weren’t “moments,” outlined in red by hysterics or excitement, worth remembering at all. They just were.
The second place that Marlena felt at home was a five-minute walk from her parents’ house: out her window (she could’ve used the front door here too, but clambering through windows just felt more like something in a movie), a left turn down their street, then a right turn into a cul-de-sac headed by a grassless path running into the woods. The trail led to a river where Lily used to take her when things weren’t great at home. Marlena’s friends liked to fish there sometimes, and she’d watch with glazed eyes. Thinking. Waiting for the moment they’d look up at her instead. In the middle of a clearing cut in half by whooshing water, lined by trees bent inward like bowing gentlemen, was Marlena’s second haven. Marked with cardinal flowers and stray six pack rings, it was a back-up for the futon when Lily’s selfishness drove her away, which it often did these days. This was the place that Marlena would end her weekend.
It was Sunday now. The morning was spent tight-lipped in church with no sign of her sister. Marlena thought that the least Lily could do was come to mass on Easter and stabilize their parents with her rare presence, but she knew she shouldn’t have ever been so hopeful. When Lily went off to college (and dropped out of college), sightings of her became more infrequent—and if those sightings were nourishment, her family was starved. Lily herself began to look famished too, the glow of her warm skin paling and her cheekbones jutting. Scabs speckled her face, a face she wouldn’t show in their childhood church, Marlena knew.
After mass came the drive home, her mother hunched over the steering wheel and her father quiet with folded hands. Maybe he was still praying. They parked in their driveway, and Marlena stepped out and walked down the street, Easter dress and all. Behind her, her mother slammed the car door and thrust her hands in her hair, and her father protested weakly—something about togetherness on the Lord’s day and lunch—but Marlena continued down. A left turn, a right turn into a cul-de-sac, then the path into woods where her friends would be fishing and she would watch. Thank God. Her dress flounced against her thighs, and the dirt ground beneath her ballet flats. She clenched her jaw and followed the river to her favorite clearing, where Daniela and Albert sat against rocks with their fishing poles. Where tranquility came to her in waves.
“Happy Easter,” she called, and her friends turned, gave half-smiles.
“Happy Easter,” said Daniela, getting to her feet. She reached for Marlena, clasped her closely, briefly, and turned back to the river. “Missed you yesterday.”
“I was trying to lay low, kinda. My mama and I aren’t getting along so great, and she didn’t like that I went to Lily’s on Friday.” She paused. “Lily didn’t even come to church today.”
“How is she?”
“Fucked up.” The three were quiet, save for the reeling of Albert’s fishline. He pulled it in, cast it out again, and Marlena sat back into the dirt. Lily was a tired subject, but she could think of nothing else she wanted to say.
Daniela glanced at her helplessly, then reached for her own pole. “I haven’t heard…good things lately. My brother was at the party too.”
Marlena inhaled softly. Fiddled with her hands. She tried to sound casual. “What do you mean?”
“The usual stuff.” Albert answered this time. So they’d already gossiped without her. He put his pole down, his foot resting atop it. “You guys want to go for a walk down the river? It’s a holiday, let’s just chill out. We talk about this all the time.” It was true. They did.
Daniela pulled her fishing pole from the water and held a hand out to Marlena, who was reluctant. But the trio stood and followed the water. They talked of other things. None of them had done their American History homework. All of them had spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about the new boy at school, and they conjectured about the number of freckles on his face. They spoke about their parents, mourned the close of their weekend. So far from the spectacles of home and the neglect of her sister, Marlena softened as she talked to her friends. As her happiness grew, so did her theatrics; she shouted and gestured wildly and laughed with them. When they came to a log blocking the water, they crossed to the other side—Marlena, so full of excitement, got her shoes wet—and made their way back toward their meeting spot. She was feeling much better.
Albert squinted into the distance and then ran ahead, returning with a billowy button-up and wide-legged pants. “Someone’s out here doing dirty shit. Naked.”
“That’s so ugly, give it here.” Daniela laughed, snatching the shirt from him and brandishing it across her torso. Marlena could smell it, sweaty and sour, and she leaned away gagging.
“Stop,” she said, but Daniela waggled it underneath her nose, so she took off sprinting down the river. Peals of laughter echoed behind her, a soft sound of crumpling as they dropped the clothes to the ground. Marlena ran to a place where stones rose to the surface of the water and bounded across them, stagey as she waved and blew kisses at her friends so far behind. But the two didn’t run to catch up with her; they fell into a slow walk together, and Marlena felt a pang of exclusion. A longing to see her sister. She fingered the smoothness at the top of her head.
Here is where Marlena would pause in her retelling of these events, widening her eyes at her listeners. She would consider that she was being theatrical, disrespectful to the memory of her sister, but in the intensity of the moment, Marlena would brush off the shame. Instead, here is where she would remind them that she would never see Lily again. Someone might ask, “But what does all this mean? Why is hanging out with Albert and Daniela important to the story?” And Marlena would lower her voice to something like a whisper and say, “Think about the clothes.”
The clothes, she hypothesized, were the ones Lily wore on Friday night, the ill-fitting threads that clung to her sweat and clung to Marlena. Marlena didn’t know that at the time; she pieced it together like a detective far after she left the cul-de-sac. As she went away from that river, her sanctuary, her second home, she heard a truck start. She saw a flash of a pale face in the driver’s seat, but she thought nothing of it. In that instant, there was nothing more normal than someone driving in a neighborhood, glancing at passersby.
Lily’s roommate would tell everyone who asked that she left on Easter morning, said Lily was on meth, headed out to get more and never returned. And everyone would nod their heads knowingly. And Marlena’s parents would close their eyes, tight-lipped. That’s so like her. We wouldn’t expect any less. But Marlena felt that she knew better. Felt it in her bones, in her marrow. She measured the truth in all those moments that weren’t quite “moments.”
She wouldn’t feel at home, anywhere, for years. She couldn’t go back to that renthouse, but Lily’s absence bore down on her everywhere she went anyway. No texts. No calls. No letters. And months after that Easter Sunday, she went and sat in the place by the river where they’d found those strange clothes, wishing they were still there so she could know for sure. She replayed that party in her head, over and over. She’d recount these scenes to anyone who would listen.
|© 2020, Ashley Jeffalone||Go to top