Dad called to tell me you were in the accident. My phone was on silent, as always, but I saw it and called him back. He said you were on your way to the dance and almost died. That was it. But I saw it on the news before—the small bus, the scattered hub caps, and an ambulance driving down an icy road—but didn’t know it was your body that jumped from the windshield, tearing off your winter formal dress. That beautiful blue dress embroidered with narcissus and hellebores and with bugs crawling up the tulle skirt.
She had been talking with the bus driver, he told me as I drove away from the airport, the car crawling the middle of the road between two plowed snow walls. She was standing at the front of the bus, he said, talking with the bus driver who got away with a scuffed arm and a poor job prospective. That was what he said before he started talking to a doctor. I hung up and found my way to the expressway that took me out of the city.
My sister, the little thing she’s always been, slid through the rectangular window, past the vigorous windshield wipers, over the warm engine hood, and onto a snowy white patch of boulders above the secret ravine. She fell twenty feet down before the snow thickened, cushioning her fall and siphoning out the blood from her head wound when she settled.
She lay unconscious in the hospital bed with a gash down her forehead. When I walked in, my entire family was standing in the hall, arms folded or holding tissues to my face before I could sit down.
“Amy, what took you so goddam long?” Dad said.
“It’s nice to see you, honey,” my aunt Cassidy said. I hadn’t seen them since last Christmas. We hadn’t seen much of each other since Mom left. It was like she took the rest of her family with her to Nashville.
I held my coat close to my chest as I sat down, listening to him repeat what he already told me on the phone. He didn’t stop talking until he saw a doctor again and followed her down the hall with questions. My extended family gathered around me to squeeze my shoulders and tell me everything was going to be okay. I didn’t say anything.
“She’s such a strong kid,” Aunt Cassidy told me, sitting next to me and taking my hand. “The most important thing is that we’re all here for her. I just—,” I felt her look at me, “I just feel so bad for not being around you both so much lately. We should have been around more. Just because you mother goes away does not mean we’re not family.” She patted the back of my hand. “No, it does not.”
I stood up. “I’m going to get some coffee.”
She nodded. “Okay, sweetheart.”
I walked down the hall and around the corner to the vending machines tucked in a little nook that glowed blue from face of the soda machine. Dad was leaning against the side of it, his right leg propped at an angle with the foot against the machine, rubbing his eyes with his thumb and forefinger.
“Goddammit, Lilith. Your daughter is in the goddamn hospital and she needs you. Just get here.” He hung up the phone, clenched it in his palm, and lifted it in the air like he was about to throw it against the snack machine.
He turned around. “Oh, hey, kiddo.” He dropped his arm to his side. “Sorry.”
“Was that Mom?” I pointed to the phone he was pocketing in his pants. I hadn’t mentioned her to him in ages.
“I’ve tried a million times.” I nodded. “You want something?” He looked at the machines and started to pull out his wallet.
“No, I got it.” He pulled out two dollars anyways and fed it to the machine. I handed him his Styrofoam cup, picked up mine, and we left the nook in silence, blowing on the coffee to cool it down.
The family was standing up and picking up their belongings when we got back. Aunt Cassidy was waiting to tell us that we were being moved to a private room. They were all there when we filled the private room, the aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, we were all there like any other happy gathering. No one was missing. They grew loud with stories about Malia, some bad attempt to elevate the mood but turned into an accidental eulogy. “Remember her dance recitals, her little tutus, or when she used her hair like a paint brush,” they gushed. Everyone was trying to be happy for a girl they didn’t know was unhappy herself. No bad stories here.
She came home one night from a friend’s house crying. I was working on some paper when I heard it. I was living at home sophomore year of college, helping around the house after Mom left. My dad yelled they were going to the hospital and came back two hours later, my paper done, saying the doctors called it a panic attack. They prescribed her, dripped her with one IV, and made her down a benzo. She woke up the next morning and left for school without me.
She always had to do something to make us notice her, even before her panic attacks. The pierced nose and hip dermals, the secret tattoo I hoped to cover with a blanket for her when, if, I got the chance to go into her hospital room. For now, I sat in the cold, dry hospital air watching three hours of a golf tournament rerun from earlier that day that Grandpa clicked on.
When it ended, I left the room for some fresh air, closing the sound of the family behind me. On the way to the elevator, I passed by a room, a déjà vu, a long-awaited thing I told not to wait up for me. I closed the elevator doors, riding it down with a forced emptiness.
Outside the hospital, a guy smoked a cigarette next to me, talking and taking my mind off of that moment, the lapse of my thought process that eventually smoothed over my inclinations for truth. He talked eloquently about his dying wife, and his last chance to feel the guilt that made him feel more alive. He was drunk and most likely lying when he said he left his wallet upstairs and needed money to ride home. I thanked him and walked inside only to meet Aunt Clarissa who handed me my bag and turned me around. She told me to go to Dad’s and get some rest. There’s no sign of anything yet. There will be more time in the morning to worry. I walked down the street to the parking garage, keys gripped in my cold, red hands. I found my car, got in and turned the radio up. Morning wasn’t a long ride away. I drove down the highway as the sky turned blue.
It felt nothing out of the ordinary. I had been riding this Malia wave for years, the worry, the consolidation, the panic. I knew her secrets, the runaways, the condoms in the sneakers, or even the hidden corners of her dark room. I researched holistic wellness for anxiety, therapy dogs, benzodiazepine death-rates. I grew crazy, like a rabid dog searching for water. My dad asked a lot of me, do this, tell me that, and I couldn’t give it to him. But help me, I wanted to, and I overcompensated to the point of breaking. She wouldn’t let me do the right thing. I didn’t know how.
I drove home fast, the radio failing to make me forget how nervous she always made me.
It happened at home when I was leaving for class and Malia was running late, as usual. There was music sounding from behind her closed bedroom door, but I knocked anyways.
“Dude, I’m leaving. You can find your own fucking ride if you’re not ready in five minutes.” I listened. The music kept playing. I knocked again. I opened the door and found her pacing around the room, pulling at her hair. Her freshman formal dress was hanging on the back of the closet door. I grabbed my water bottle from my bag and got her meds off of the desk.
“No. I already took one.”
“Okay… Okay, we’ll just go for a walk then.”
“But you have to get to class,” she said between sobs.
“It’s fine. I have a little time. Let’s go.”
I put my hand on her back and we walked downstairs. She kept waving her hands in front of her, shaking them at the wrists like she was drying filthy water from them. We walked outside in silence, taking deep breaths between steps. Her hands dropped to her sides and then wrapped around her body.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she said. It was the first and biggest step she took, and the rest that followed between tears were easy. She recalled the freshman dance, the drinking, and coming home to see an empty spot in the driveway. The chill of the IV drip from her first hospital visit. The bitter, dry taste of chewing a pill that meant to be downed and the nurse laughing and handing her ice water.
We walked all the way to the park and back.
I punched the useless radio off in the car when I saw where I was. I had to drive down the road the bus took, which was cleared and salted by now. It all looked safe under the soft snowfall, except for a wide opening in the bushes off the side of the road that led into the branches of trees planted at the bottom of the ridge. A car honked and realized I had slowed down. They went around me. I mirrored their middle finger back.
Two months of endless bandages and one expensive corrective surgery and I was riding the wave again, researching, waiting, and hoping for the day when she would be okay again. But it sounded like she wasn’t going to get there.
“She has severe—Oh, what’s it called?” Dad said through the phone. “Post—amne—,” he trailed off in tears. Aunt Clarissa grabbed the phone.
“Amy, honey. She’s doing better. She’s still having trouble remembering. We still have to keep reminding her who we are. But she’s coming home soon. Your dad would like you to be there.”
The day came when Malia was released. She wasn’t clear, but she was healing and ready. She looked different, happy, even when she saw us as basic strangers and asked us who we were. I drove home—their home—from the airport. I parked in the street, narrowly missing the sidewalk as I looked at the house. It looked sad and dull like I remember it as I left last and the time before. I got out of the car and stood against it, looking at the house from afar. The white paneling had green stains spreading from the rooftop, the window boxes were full of dead brown flowers, and the porch swing chains were rusted and stiff.
When we were younger, we used to swing on it all the time in the summer. Other times, we would crawl under the porch to look for bugs. I held a flashlight pointed in front as Malia crawled ahead of me. She chased a butterfly from the butterfly bush that poked itself through the lattice into the dark underbelly of the house.
“It went in there!” she said, reaching her little hand through. “I can get it.”
“It’s too far in,” I said, grabbing her arm. I yanked it back, but it wouldn’t budge. She let out a yelp.
“You’re hurting me, Amy!” She looked at me, mad and I admired how she didn’t start crying right away like I would have. I needed to get help, I said. Mom and Dad were out back making dinner on the grill. I got to my feet, hunched over beneath the dark underbelly of the porch, ready to go get them before Malia protested.
“Don’t leave me! You can’t tell Mommy and Daddy.” Her eyebrows furrowed over her squinted eyes and her mouth was taut. I sat next to her for a half hour until dinner was ready and Mom came to look for us.
“What are you kids doing under there?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I said, attempting to hide Malia’s stuck arm.
“Uh-huh, sure,” she said, going around the side of the porch to come under. She bear-crawled over to us, saw Malia’s arm, and sighed. “Again?” She got up close to Malia and squeezed her arm, sliding it through the small diamond-shaped hole she fit it into.
“Ow!” Malia said, but never cried. Mom took her to the bathroom to tweeze out the splinters and I watched. Dad kept our food warm out back until we were done.
Dad’s car drove post and into the driveway. He got out and wrapped himself in his coat. I walked across the street and greeted him with a hug. He opened the back door and helped Malia out. She had trouble walking a bit but otherwise stood well upright.
“Hi, Malia,” I said, stepping to her. She had a heavy Carhart jacket on, clearly one of Dad’s work jackets, and a loose-knit cap covering her half-bald head. “I’m Amy.” I instinctively put out my hand for a shake but drew it back too fast. I looked to my dad, who looked at us concerned and amused. “Your sister,” he said to her. I looked back to her. The house, the smell, the street all brushed away the life back in New York and forced me into my old body again, like an old stranger was taking over.
“Hi,” she said, so tired. She looked at the ground, looked up at the dogwood tree in the yard, and looked behind her at the house. She was scared, but somehow that looked the same.
“Let’s get inside. Jen Gyles is stopping by any time now.”
I walked behind her to the front door. “Who’s Jen Gyles?”
“Malia’s occupational therapist. She’ll be coming here to help out sometimes.”
“Oh,” I said, realizing I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I noticed people taking down their Christmas lights two doors over.
“Yeah,” he said. “They’re nice. Offered us tickets to an Eagles game once.”
“Nice,” I said, not listening.
We entered the house and I saw for the first time, through her eyes as she looked around, how big it was. It looked smaller when we were younger, coming home from school in our long plaid skirts, and grew even smaller as we got older and the skirts shrunk, when we started growing breasts and got our periods. “Welcome to motherhood,” Mom said, and the world outside grew smaller with it.
We gave her a tour of the house, starting in the living room, the kitchen, skipping the basement to avoid the extra stairs. Instead, by the time Jen Gyles arrived, we slowly practiced going up the stairs. We finished off the tour in her room, which was left strewn with clothes and school books. Her makeup was set at her vanity, still scattered I guessed from the night of the dance. Jen asked if she could set up in there.
She couldn’t remember who she was. She couldn’t even remember what a name was. She learned to learn and then forgot to remember. I stayed over nights to read her books that she would forget by the time she hit the pillow. I sat at her desk in her room as she slept, working on client’s content calendars which my boss was sending me regularly.
It went on like this for months. Wake, dress, eat, go to therapy, go home, eat, nap, etcetera. Rarely did our schedule change, except for the occasional family party that we were slowly re-incorporated into.
She stood at the table spread for our cousin’s birthday, looking at the food, unable to make a decision before I plated her a hamburger and baked beans. She drooled when she ate but she still had the capacity to feel embarrassed as the little cousins laughed when something slid from her mouth to her lap, staining her clothes.
She spilled ketchup on a pink dress with short puffy sleeves, cinched with a tiny bow at the waste. It was a dress of mine that I handed down to her years ago. I took her upstairs to change out of it and into some spare clothes we carry around.
“How are you feeling?” I asked, going into one of the bedrooms.
“Overwhelmed,” she said, sitting on the bed.
“I feel. This family’s always overwhelming.” I picked some jeans and a T-shirt from the bag. “Do you remember anyone?” I bent down to unbuckle her Mary Janes.
“Not really,” she said, fixing her socks and looking guilty.
“It’ll come to you.” My eyes welled up for the first time. I turned away to a mirror to wipe them.
“Do we have a Mom?” she said. My eyes widened, and the tears dried up. I looked at her reflection. I didn’t know how to answer.
“Get dressed. I’ll be outside the door.”
She changed into the clothes and we went back downstairs to sing happy birthday and eat cake. She sat in the kitchen for most of the night, receiving sad glances and stuttering hellos to people who introduced themselves five times over.
When the night ended, we did the memory exercises that Jen taught us, like puzzles and match games with fruits or animals or insects. When we were done, Dad brought her upstairs to bed and I boiled a pot of tea on the stove and scrolled through my computer. Dad came back down ten minutes later.
“Tea?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said.
I poured him some and pushed it over to him. We stood across from each other, both leaning against the counter.
“She’s doing good,” Dad said.
“Yeah. Jen said so, too.”
“It’s a little odd, though,” he said, muffling his eyebrows.
“What?” I took a sip of tea and burnt my tongue. I rubbed it on the roof of my mouth and squeezed my eyes to stop them from watering.
“She’s not having panic attacks anymore.”
I looked up at him. He was looking off into the corner. “That’s a good thing, though. Right?”
“Yeah. I mean—I guess so.”
“Was she having them a lot before?”
He nodded. “Maybe once or twice a week, at least.”
“Wow. I didn’t know.”
“It’s been rough. I don’t know what I’m doing, Amy.” I looked up at him. He looked so sad.
“Me neither. I rubbed my tongue against the roof of my mouth again, feeling the grainy burnt patch on the front. “She asked me about Mom.”
He took a deep breath in. “I knew that’d happen.” He sighed and took a sip of his tea.
“I didn’t know what to say to her,” I said.
“I wouldn’t either.” He shrugged.
She was eating more, sitting still, and waiting day by day for some new memory to come by, if she could remember to remember. When she slept—and she slept a lot—I did more work on my computer and flipped through some of her journals. It felt wrong but necessary to find important details for her to remember. Most of the entries mentioned Mom, and all of them were sad.
Dad scheduled regular visits for Malia’s friends. Malia sat at the couch, listening to their attempts at recounting adventures they used to have, like sneaking out and partying. They eyed me warily before I told them it was fine and that I already knew. They still hesitated, seeing me like her mother.
I came home from the grocery store one day when I saw a new car in the drive with lacrosse bumper stickers and trash in the back seat. I walked in the house and heard voices from the living room. I saw the back of a young boy’s head with messy brown hair, an inverted sweatshirt hood pressed against his neck.
Dad looked up, smiling. I saw Malia sitting in the chair across from Josh, hands folded in her lap, fiddling with some small object.
“Ame, I’m glad you’re home. This is Josh. He and Malia went to the dance together.” He reached out his hand and I shook it.
“Nice to meet you. So—” I said, turning to Dad who was standing in my way of seeing Malia. I lowered my voice. “So, you must have been there… on the bus”
Dad nodded and moved to sit next to Malia. “He was just telling us,” he said.
I dropped my bag on the floor and sat down in a chair. Josh sat back down on the couch and smiled awkwardly. There was a plastic container sitting next to him. Malia looked bored, slunk down in her chair. She was fiddling with a cluster of small white flowers wrapped to an elastic band.
“It’s okay, Josh,” Dad said. “We appreciate you being here. Malia’s alright.”
Josh hesitated. “It was very scary.” I sat still. I felt too warm from the moment’s whiplash; I wasn’t prepared to hear his story. “We were sitting in our bus seat when Malia—” She looked up. “—Well, when you started to freak out. You were shaking. I thought you were cold, so I stood up to give you my jacket, but you slid out of the seat and ran to the bus driver. I sat back down and watched. You were saying something about opening the door. I think you wanted to get out. Next thing I knew, we crashed.”
“That happened to me?” she asked. She looked at me, confusion set behind her dark eyes.
“I didn’t know you went to the hospital,” Dad said.
“No one was there. I was dropping off that.” He pointed to the corsage Malia had in her hand. “Well, not that one, but one like it. When the accident happened, I didn’t get a chance to give her the corsage,” he said. “So, I got her another one. This one’s nicer, actually.”
I furrowed my eyebrows, realizing I had never seen the photos from that night.
“Why did I do that?” Malia asked.
Everyone turned to her. “I don’t know,” Josh said. “You didn’t say.”
Malia looked down, and for a moment, something flashed in her eyes. Maybe I imagined it, but I swore she knew in an instantaneous moment she remembered everything that had ever made her sad. I could have been projecting, but I felt it, too.
I took three breaths. “Well, Josh, thanks for stopping by.” I stood up.
“No, no,” Dad said. “He can stay a little longer.”
“That’s okay,” Josh said, getting up. “I should get going anyways. It was great to see you, Mal.”
She nodded, like she would to a stranger.
Josh shook Dad’s hand and walked to the door. Dad walked out with him and closed the door. Malia stood up and walked to the kitchen. It was time for dinner.
She ebbed through the changes and choices that eventually led her to her semi-regular self again. She remembered her name and some of the relatives that showed up for the Fourth of July barbecue. Friends and family gathered around in our backyard to make new memories. I watched Malia from the porch, talking with neighborhood friends, sharing laughter and even sneaking to the beer cooler before getting caught by my uncle. She looked happy and she didn’t remember a thing. How was it that that was right?
She danced underneath the fireworks, taking pictures with her friends, preserving every moment in case we all might forget it sometime later. She waved sparklers in the air, twirling them in circles, embedding silky lines in the photographs. She’d hang these on her walls in college, next to baby photos, old photo booth rolls, and pictures of what used to be our family with the names of people written in sharpie underneath. Next to the formal dance pictures—redoes from her second senior year of high school with a pretty red dress on and new friends arm in arm, and the photos from the first senior winter formal year with Josh wrapped around her in that little blue dress. The freshman formal photos were put away in storage, not to be seen until years later. Malia, in a sweet pink dress staring at the camera looking happy with our mom by her side.