This is the second installment of a two-part story. You can read part one here.
“You start, Candace,” Mom said.
Everyone looked at me. I hesitated, trying to decide whether to tell them my news
“Come on, Candace!” seven-year-old Tyson called. “That turkey’s going to grow wings and fly away. I’m starving.”
When the laughter died down, I took the plunge. “I’ve written a short story and it’s going to be published.”
“Cool!” “Congratulations!” “Where’s it coming out?”
“In The Anchor Magazine. That’s the school creative writing magazine.”
“Wow, cool. Great job,” someone said in that fake tone reserved for the kid who wins third place in the T-ball tournament.
“Something for the resume, I suppose,” my father said. “Moving on, I’m thankful for the recent rise in the stock market.”
They went around the table, thanking God or the universe for new hips and basketball wins and snowboarding and Jesus.
“I’m thankful that I still have work,” my mother said. Then she turned to Bella. “Your turn,” she added in a stage whisper.
Everyone waited. Bella opened her eyes wide, started, stopped, started again. “I have a very important announcement. I didn’t really think it was possible, but this spring I started writing a novel — a novella really — and just a few weeks ago I sent it off to a small publishing house in Chicago. And guess what? They want to publish it!”
My father stood up, his vague eyes suddenly in focus. He walked around the table and then bent and kissed Bella’s cheek hard. “My girl!”
I tried to keep a straight, smiling face, while inside my mind was being ripped to pieces by shrapnel. How could she? How could she take the one thing that was mine, the one thing I cared about, and make it hers? Do it better than me even. Breathe, I told myself. Just don’t throw up. I hated Bella with every broken bloody shred of myself.
While Dad carved and Mom served, Bella explained that the publisher liked her fresh voice and thought it would appeal to middle schoolers. She would have to go and make presentations around the country if the book took off. Her new editor was initially unsure that she could handle this, but after chatting with her on Skype, he decided that she had the poise to carry it off. Bella explained all this with giggles and blushes to avoid the impression of bragging.
“So, dressing for success paid off,” Mom said with a broad grin.
“What’s your book called, Bella?” Tyson asked, tucking into the sweet potato pie.
“Friends and Rivals,” she replied with a generous smile.
“Where’d you get the idea, Bella?” Aunt Julia asked between bites of turkey and beans.
I knew what was coming and wanted to hide under the table or take the car to San Francisco, never to see these people again. I tried to think of some way to change the subject. I stood, held my stomach, made a fake grimace, and stumbled towards the bathroom.
When I returned they were still talking about it. I tried to join in with the laughter, because I couldn’t bear the thought of them thinking that I was unhappy, jealous at my own sister’s success.
Finally, the ticker tape parade started to disperse. Dishes were washed, and comments about Bella’s novel mixed with more mundane thoughts — like getting ready for Christmas. Around ten we went out into the cold night as our extended family was packed into cars with blankets and leftovers. “See you at Christmas.” “Maybe we’ll have snow this year.” “Congratulations again, Bella. Can’t wait to read your magnus opus.”
I claimed a stomach ache and headed upstairs. With Bella safely downstairs surrounded by all the adoration she could handle, I figured I had at least ten minutes. Her bedroom door was open, her computer on. No password needed. I scanned the desktop until I found Friends and Rivals, and opened the document. So different from my own opening pages, these sounded like Bella. “My sister is my best friend even though we fight all the time.” Frothy, breathless, effortless. I wanted to hate them, but I couldn’t help catching a glimpse of what the publisher saw. Damn!
I heard a noise at the bottom of the stairs, closed the document, and slipped out of Bella’s room and into my own. I locked my door, turned on my computer, and started writing. I didn’t read what went before because I knew its shameful mediocrity would slow me in my tracks. I just started hitting the keys hard.
Emma’s sister had stolen her inheritance. She would have to kill her. She needed to do it soon before the anger died low and she lost her courage.
Chloe had taken the one thing that mattered.
Emma first thought of using a gun — but of course, no one in her house owned a firearm. She thought of drowning Chloe but they hardly ever swam outside, not in the cold weather especially, and you couldn’t drown your sister in front of lifeguards and mothers and toddlers, and anyway, her sister was a better swimmer. Which didn’t matter much.
She had taken the one thing that did matter.
Perhaps a car accident — with her younger sister as passenger or pedestrian — but if she didn’t want to die herself, there was no reliable way to achieve this.
She deserved to die for taking the one thing that mattered.
Smothering? Strangling? Poison? Nothing seemed to work. Except a knife. A knife was as old as hate and anger, old as Cain and Esau and Joseph’s brothers. A knife would satisfy her need to shove and twist and feel the blood spurt and spurt and then sputter to a trickle and die out.
I read through what I had written and found for the first time since that fateful announcement at dinner, that I could breathe normally. I closed the document, shut off my computer, turned out the light, and slumped fully clothed into bed. Like Mr. Sawyer said, writing was cathartic. Then I must have slept.
I woke the next morning, feeling refreshed, until I remembered the night before, and knew I would never be happy again.
“Drive carefully,” my mother warned, as I pulled out of the drive to take Bella to volleyball practice. The temperature had dropped below freezing and the grass and branches and road were glazed with a thin cover of ice. Bella was wearing shorts and a t-shirt with short socks and sneakers. She hadn’t thought to wear a sweatshirt. She wrapped her arms tight around herself.
I drove faster than my mother would have approved of. Bella gasped every now and then when the tires slipped on the ice.
“Can we turn up the heat?” she asked.
“Go ahead.” The car probably wouldn’t warm up before we reached the gym.
She fiddled with the old heater and then rubbed her arms. “You’re not mad at me, are you?”
“Why would I be mad at you?” I took my eyes off the road just long enough to make her nervous.
“Because of my novel. Because it’s getting published?”
I looked back at the street, just in time to dodge a jogger with a German shepherd. “Oh, come on, Bella. That really makes me sound like a bitch. Why would I get pissed about your success? It’s nothing to do with me.”
Bella shrugged. “I don’t know. I probably would be … I mean … Well, I’m glad you’re OK with this. Having you upset would have spoiled it.”
I laughed. Wouldn’t it be a tragedy if there was some blemish in the perfect splendor of Bella’s joy? I pulled over just outside the gym. “Don’t be silly, kiddo. I’m not that immature. Of course, I’m proud of you — just like the others.”
“Thanks, Sis. Sorry I underestimated you.” She leaned over and gave me a quick, strawberry lip gloss-smelling hug.
I watched her neat little green and gold shorts retreating into the crowd.
Jealousy is silly, Candace, I imagined her girlish voice intoning. The world would be a better place if we could all enjoy each other’s successes. My success doesn’t harm you.
But it does, Bella, I could point out. In a family, there is only so much love to go around. There can be only one favorite. Your being the favorite prevented me from being the favorite. Same with publishing. There are so few places to publish. Your getting published made it harder for me. You are a stumbling block to me.
Fifteen minutes later I stood in front of the fridge trying to figure out a snack that wasn’t leftover turkey and sweet potato pie, listening to my mother on the phone. She was talking to her brother in California, telling him in detail about, what else, Bella’s fabulous new novel, and how she hadn’t expected it, but how in retrospect it made sense. Bella wasn’t just an ordinary high achieving high schooler. She was made for greatness. Mom was recalling moments from Bella’s childhood. I imagined Uncle Brian, who was a sensible fellow, leaving his phone on the couch to natter on unheard while he headed into the kitchen for a beer.
I plunged a fork into the cold pecan pie and munched through the stiff suety sugary mess.
Emma would have liked them to know that she was the killer. Then they would understand how angry she’d been and how badly they’d screwed up in favoring her sister. But then she’d be arrested and convicted, and, much as she wanted them to know this was all their fault, she didn’t want to go to prison for life. She’d have to give up the satisfaction of them feeling guilty and wishing they’d done different; and make do with them being broken-hearted.
I took a bite of the drumstick I’d brought upstairs and contemplated my next chapter. Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennet wouldn’t have killed their little sisters in cold blood. Well, this was more of a Frankenstein or Hannibal the Cannibal sort of story.
If she was going to kill with a knife and get away with it, there were a lot of logistical questions to sort out. Like where would she get the knife? If she took one from the kitchen, suspicion would turn to her. Could she buy one without being remembered? Perhaps if she dressed in a very inconspicuous way and went to Walmart in another town. She didn’t have a memorable face. What about bloody footprints and fingerprints? She’d have to look those up on the internet — but not on her own personal computer or her parents’ computer. That would be too easy to trace. Maybe she could use the computer at the public library. And she shouldn’t leave any evidence on her own computer for that matter. Not like a detailed plan of the crime.
“Candace!” my mother called from downstairs. “You were supposed to pick up your sister ten minutes ago.”
“Sorry, Mom. I’ve been busy with my geometry homework. Can’t you get her?”
“I have an appointment. Remember our deal.”
I shut down my computer, unplugged it and fitted it into its case. I could decide what to do with it later. I smiled at my mother on the way out. “Need anything at the store? I’m planning on picking up a few toiletries at Riteaid.”
“Well that’s thoughtful. Perhaps a bottle of 2% milk. Pick up your sister first though. I expect she’s getting anxious.”
I paid cash for the milk and candy and carving knife at Riteaid. Then I sat in the car in the parking lot and took the knife out of its package. Buying it had been a big step, a big, scary, satisfying step. I tested the blade against my thumb and drew blood. There’d be a lot of blood when I stabbed my Bella. I wouldn’t be able to back out after I started. I needed to be sure I could carry through. I needed to practice.
I raised the knife a couple of feet above the passenger seat. Damage to the fake leather wouldn’t matter after Bella’s death. Now, I told myself. Imagine doing it. I took a deep breath but released it in a slow puff. My arm descended slowly. I couldn’t. I couldn’t stab a car seat, let alone a young girl.
I felt hot and opened the window and felt the subfreezing air against my scalding cheeks. My pulse was jittery and I was breathing hard. The reality was different from the daydream. A failure at murder just like everything else, I tossed the knife into the nearest trash can and then opened my computer and read a few pages. In the cold light of day, my words sickened me, like the morning after an evening of binge eating. I clicked and dragged and held the document over the recycle bin. Then I let go.
I headed for school. Bella was leaning against the wall of the school, alone.
“How come you’re so late?” she asked, after she’d fastened her seatbelt.
“Sorry,” I said, “I stopped at the store. Here.” I offered her a box of Raisinets.
She tore it open and started munching greedily. “I wouldn’t normally. But I’m so frigging cold and hungry.” She had chocolate around her mouth. “Hey, can we stop for coffee?” She was just a person scratching and clawing to get ahead. Not so different from me. She didn’t deserve to die.
But — to be honest — it wasn’t the wrongness of killing that stopped me so much as the pointlessness. Killing Bella wouldn’t make my parents love me more. They’d just erect a shrine to their dead child and worship that. And killing her wouldn’t get my novel published. I’d been a fool to imagine I could solve my problem so easily.
I jiggled the knob on the car’s heater and coaxed a little warmth out of it. Then I drove just under the speed limit and listened without interrupting while Bella chattered on about her practice and her plans for her novella. I pulled into the strip mall and headed for the Starbucks drive-thru. An old man was walking in the middle on the road, oblivious to the cars behind him. A young woman was wrestling a toddler out of his car seat. A boy and girl walked side by side, their arms entwined. A broad-faced teenager took our order. I thought of my mother and father and grandmother. Ordinary people. Like me.
I could’ve killed my sister. Lots of kids say that sort of thing. They never mean it.