I don’t want to talk about the fact that my sister helped herself to my clothes and room the moment she moved back in. I don’t want to talk about the way my mother fawns over her with wet, teary eyes and the way my father holds her and calls her “precious.” I don’t want to comment on her favorite sweets baking in the oven, her old toys dug out and spread all over the house, or her yellow tank top with ducks printed on it, an old gag gift I gave her. I don’t even want to discuss the fact that she’s supposed to be two years older than me, not four years younger.
But I do have to talk about the fact that she died ten years ago.
As she rushes forward to hug me, I instinctively raise my arms and push her away. Not harshly, not rudely, but protectively of my person, the way one might push away a slimy surface for fear of dirtying their clothing.
“Where the hell did you come from?”
She looks hurt, but as hurt as my mother, who’s looking at me with such wounded shock, as if I’d just kicked her.
“I came home,” she says brightly, and reaches out again. I don’t want her to touch me, but to appease my parents, I let her hug me. She feels uncomfortably real, unsettlingly warm. I want to wrap her in a weeping embrace. Instead, I pry her hands from my body and walk away.
The last photo we ever took of her was a week before she disappeared. She was twelve, fresh-faced and grinning widely, dark hair and metal braces glistening in the sun. Next to her, holding her hand and beaming as if proud to have such a brilliant and beautiful sister, was me, aged ten. I remember how I felt back then – so in awe of her. Bianca, who was a cheerleader in middle school. Bianca, who could sing and dance like an angel. Bianca, who let me borrow her skirts and kitten heels and told me how pretty I looked in them, even as I clumsily tripped all over myself trying to walk. Back then I thought she was the most beautiful girl in the world. Now, seeing her with grown eyes, I see she was kind of a goofy-looking thing, with big ears and an uneven splash of acne on her cheeks. That didn’t take away the radiance of her smile, however.
The same smile that’s on her now, as my parents – our parents – dote on her. Mother keeps touching Bianca’s face and asking her if she needs anything – a drink, a blanket, money, anything to give her an excuse to lavish affection on the girl; affection that has been aching for a recipient for the past decade. Father has run to the market to fetch ingredients for Bianca’s favorite meal.
I don’t want to be around her, and yet I can’t stop looking at her face. It’s so perfect, so right. Hair dark and shiny like liquid onyx, framing the alabaster skin of her face, a face that’s a little older now, a little more mature, free of acne and baby fat. She looks just how I’d imagine Bianca would look as a teenager, instead of how she should look, which is twenty-two. This girl, whoever she is, looks like she stepped right out of a photo of Bianca, a photo we never took.
The house smells of hot soup, warm cake, and old memories on this odd night. I listen to mother and father tell Bianca about all the things she’s missed out on in her absence, trying their best to emphasize the good things – family trips, holidays, great-grandmother’s hundredth birthday – and purposefully skipping over the six months I spent under the watchful eye of the Behavioral Health Hospital after they found me trying to make a noose out of my spare sheets the day after the search for Bianca was officially called off. I was angry they stopped me. Recovery was long. I bit therapists until they medicated me into a stupor.
I watch her add ketchup to her beef stew, just like I used to make fun of her for. I listen to her laugh and slide her finger absently behind her ear, the way she always did when she found something amusing. The stew is warm and delicious, with extra onions just like Bianca liked it, but I find it hard to swallow with a thousand questions lodged in my throat. Questions that mother and father refuse to ask, mired as they are in their joy. Much to my chagrin, I find that I am reluctant to ask them myself, so I eat fast, fetching second and third helpings for the sole purpose of keeping my mouth full so I don’t have to speak.
She turns to me. “I’ve missed you so much, Sophie,” she says, her voice full of emotion. “What have you been doing? Tell me.”
I swallow a mouthful. “I tried to hang myself,” I say, “because you died.”
Mother puts her hand to her chest. I stand up and leave the table.
The papers called her Snow White. For a few short weeks she was a minor celebrity, the girl who woke from a coma and reunited with her family, who never lost hope or stopped searching for her. The nickname is fitting, given her fair Spanish looks and the bizarre circumstances of the story. Then the attention died down, and people moved onto the next hot thing, like they’re wont to do. But I can’t move on.
The story they wrote was all wrong, but no one corrects them. Especially not mother and father.
She went missing at the age of six, the story said. Wrong. She disappeared at twelve.
They found nothing for months, the story said. Not a clue as to her fate. Wrong. Someone found her shoe. And her clothes, torn with signs of struggle. They found a clump of her hair, scalp still attached.
The story called me her older sister. The story said she has been in a hospital for the past ten years an hour out of town, with no one to identify her. They said she woke up and immediately asked for her family, naming her parents and sister. They said it was a miracle, the pretty girl who woke up like Snow White. No one knows what poisoned apple she swallowed to make her sleep, but that was part of the mystery that made the whole thing so romantic.
I don’t know if any of that is true, but it feels wrong. She can’t have been in a hospital for ten years. She can’t have simply been asleep. She can’t have suddenly aged backwards. The story is wrong. She’s wrong. Everything is wrong.
If only it didn’t feel so right.
I haven’t returned to university for several days, even after the holiday ended. I can’t leave this alone, and yet I can’t bring myself to go to her. My body aches to be around her, to hold her and hug her and tickle her and call her sister. Mother knocks on my door. Father asks why I can’t just let everyone have this, take it for what it is. She is Bianca and she is home.
But I can’t. Not when the stories say she became lost playing outside on a fair day by the river. Not when she actually ran off because I’d caught her stuffing her bra after being envious of her apparent sudden emergence into womanhood. In a fit of meanness that carried over from being picked on earlier in the day by the boy I fancied on the playground, I threatened to tell all her cheerleader friends. She had pulled her shirt on in a hurry and run out of the house red-faced, with me jeering and laughing behind her. I had waited for her to return for further teasing, then the minutes turned into hours into days.
I never told anyone of our last exchange. I still wake up at night, the sound of our parents’ voices calling for her echoing in my ears.
I come downstairs to father napping on the couch, something he used to love on lazy Sunday afternoons in my childhood. He lost that habit after Bianca went missing and instead spent those afternoons flitting about from one place to another, sitting then standing then looking out the window, as if restlessly waiting. I had forgotten how peaceful he looked during those little snoozes. In the kitchen, I hear the clatter of pans and mother’s whistling as she bakes Christmas cookies. I smell the sugar and butter and try to remember the last time she whistled in the kitchen. Bianca lays a blanket over father. She faces me.
“What do you want from me, Sophie?” she asks.
I want you to go through my closet and tell me what to wear. I want you to bring magazines into my room after bed time and show me which guys you think are cute. I want you to ride bikes and steal cookies with me and tell me I have to help you pass a note to Joey Harper. I want you to wrinkle your nose at the smell of grandmother’s perfume and tell me if I pucker up for old people smooches I might get a dollar. I want you to teach me how to tell lies and kiss boys and not be dead the last ten years.
“Why can’t you let yourself enjoy this?”
I open my mouth, expecting one of many reasons to come out. Logical reasons. But what comes out is this: “Because I killed you.”
The girl calling herself Bianca blinks. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“Where did you come from?”
“Because I heard them call her name, and they were sad. They kept calling, day after day after day. Even after you left home, they went into those woods. And they kept calling.”
“Why don’t they ask questions? Why don’t any of them?”
“It is natural with my kind. The people wish to believe us and fit us into their minds and lives. We’re drawn to broken families. Cuckoos of a sort.”
“Will you leave?”
“I will if you want.”
“And if I don’t?”
“I’ll stay. Be their child until they pass. Then I can leave, or I can be your sister until you pass. A sister adopted, if you prefer to think of it that way. Whatever you like.”
Father stirs on the couch, just as mother emerges from the kitchen with a tray of hot cookies. I watch Bianca fawn over them, and dip one after another in hot milk, like we used to do on so many Christmas mornings. I watch our parents smile like they haven’t been able to, a whole smile rather than one that resembled broken pottery.
I nibble on a cookie and watch them. I think, that given enough time, maybe I can find it in myself to teach her how to tell lies and kiss boys.