by Paige Powell
You wore a dress with a baby blue collar when you came over — remember? After my birthday. It was already late; I was sitting near an open window, ghosts escaping my body in the form of cigarette smoke. I saw you coming up the drive; I stubbed out the cigarette and ran a brush through my hair. There were so many things I didn’t want you to know. You knocked on the door and I opened it, checking over your shoulder for Patrol Officers.
Nobody there, you said. I was careful. You uncovered something you held in your arms — a tiny cake, frosted in blue. Happy birthday. I’m sorry I missed it.
What happened? I said.
Something came up.
In your other hand was a bottle of white wine, which you shook at me, smiling. That and the cake together must have cost you a month’s worth of Luxuries Credits. I could never be angry with you for long — why was that? I was angry with you often, but that anger was short, inconsequential comets, bright in their flare and quick to die. I stepped aside so that you could come in. As I was closing the door behind you, the bells went off: gong, gong, gong. Only of course they weren’t bells, not really, only a recording of an old clocktower broadcast from a satellite above. Curfew was starting in our quadrant of City B.
Yeah, all right, come in.
I stepped aside and closed the door behind you. I could see you take in the piles of dirty clothes, the crusted bowls on the coffee table, the mustiness of that small apartment. But you didn’t say anything. I was glad for it.
You said, sister, sister, I’ve met a man.
Yes. But this one is special. You uncorked the wine. I stayed silent as you bustled around in the kitchen looking for clean glasses. I knew you would tell me about it, but I wasn’t going to ask. To tell you the truth, I was still hurt about the birthday thing.
You came back with coffee mugs and forks. I poured myself wine and cut into a sugared rose on the border of the cake.
I met him outside the Detox Office.
I thought of my last time in Radiation, walking up the steps of City Hall with a crowd pushing around me, hoisting angry signs in capital letters, and I thought, you fucking idiots, what are you going to do? Commandeer a ship and blow the Mars Colony to pieces? I knew these were people who would show up missing. Or Harvested. Or Occupied. The point is, it didn’t matter what I thought of these people and their anger — life under the Colony was sad, sometimes brutal; the point was that their anger was dangerous.
You fell for a guy protesting the —
Sssh. You rested your hand on my forearm and lightly pushed aside a fraction of the curtain to make sure nobody was outside. It’s not like that, you whispered. Romantic, I mean. He’s married. But that’s not the point. The point is, he —
I am your older sister. Sometimes that doesn’t mean anything — a mere happenstance of dates, of cells, of DNA — but, sometimes, it does.
You’re telling me you’re into some dangerous shit. That’s what you’ve come here to tell me.
Oh, Sissy, you said. You called me Sissy when you were a baby, and now you never do, except when you want to be coddled, or loved, or told everything will be fine.
I didn’t want to hear what you were going to tell me, because then whatever it was would be real, and Mom and Dad weren’t there to help me help you. I wish that they were. You would have listened to them.
You said, they say Japan is unoccupied. They say they’re fighting back. I want to help. I want to do something.
Japan is in ashes, I said. And if it isn’t, and what you’re saying is true, then it will be. There’s nothing we can do.
That’s what you always say.
Because it’s true. I paused. You have to stay safe. That’s the most important thing.
I wonder if that’s true.
We were quiet, and then either you or I changed the subject, I don’t remember which. I remembered your fascination with Roman history, the time you started candle making, the many causes you’d believed in, and how all those things had faded, with time. I hoped this would be like that. Maybe life would interfere. Maybe you would fall in love, for real this time; maybe you would start singing, maybe dancing, who knows, or be assigned a job you liked better than the daycare; maybe things would get better, maybe we could go to Europe, like in the movies. But none of those things would happen if they found out what you were doing.
You fell asleep on my couch, and as I covered you with a blanket, you whispered, you could help, too. I didn’t answer. I squeezed your hand and made my own way to bed, heart pumping a sick heat through my body.
• • •
The night was all lit up in pink — it’s weird, right, how their ships are lit up candy-colored, as if their visits meant something nice, something sweet? — when you called me, and I knew something was wrong because you called instead of texting, and I had only twenty minutes to get to you, but I was afraid.
Please, you kept saying. Please.
By the time I made it to your apartment, the bells were ringing and people were in the streets heading home, but every now and then I saw someone standing still in the crowd, looking, and I tried to keep my hands steady on the wheel, as if I, too, were on my way home, just another ordinary end of a day. But I did make it to you. Like I said I would.
When you opened the door, you looked like an alley cat hearing its own death rattle, two reflective eyes blinking frantically in Morse code. What happened? Your arm was smeared with blood, and that looked so foreign framed in your ordinary doorframe, alongside your gray sweatshirt, that I had to stare before it made sense, and you pulled me inside, locking the door behind me. I saw that you had added a chain lock, as if that would do anything at all.
What is it? What’s wrong?
The living room, you said. He’s in the living room.
I couldn’t see the living room from the entrance hall, and I knew, I knew then, that our moment in the hallway together was precious, that as soon as I saw what was in the living room, our lives would look different. You would be more than just my sister, just like those people, the ones protesting at City Hall, became more than just people when they disappeared or their bodies were found, how already the whisper of their names were becoming something, hushed, barely acknowledged, but alive and more dangerous every day.
In the living room was the body of a man, slack on the couch. His eyelids were propped open so that, if he still had eyes, he would be staring at me. I could tell from his sagging skin, the hollowness of his cheeks and gut, that he had already been Harvested. That man is dead, I thought. The man whose anger once thrummed so insistently that, like a conductor, he stood outside City Hall and guided a symphony of rage so loud they could hear it up on their distant planet. All gone, now. Sucked through a tube, ground into an anonymous pulp for their medicine or food or whatever it was they did with us when we were dead.
I had almost forgotten you were standing behind me. I remembered your arm.
Are you hurt? I asked.
What? I’m not hurt, it’s him, they —
Yes, I know. I know that. But there’s no blood in a Harvesting.
Oh, you said. You looked at your arm as if you had not seen it before, as if your body were something of little consequence. Well, I — I had just gone to the kitchen to get a glass of water, and when I came back, he — I guess I squeezed too hard, and the glass broke and I —
You shuddered. It just happened so fast. They came and left so fast and I didn’t know.
But why is he here? I asked.
You ran a hand through your hair before you answered. We were going to do something. Big. The two of us.
And there was nothing for either of us to say. I think maybe I hated you when you told me that, just a little bit. But I insisted that you go to sleep — I knew if we went into the bedroom and closed the door, the body would be gone by morning. A message was given, a message received.
Lying in bed, I couldn’t see your face but could feel your feet on mine, hear your soft breathing. What do you think they do to us after they kill us? you asked. I didn’t answer. I knew exactly as much as you did. We were both told stories on the playground of child-snatching Martian colonists who would slurp you up like spaghetti. We loved those stories. There may have been some truth to them — there were rumors that something in the Martian earth was toxic, a carcinogen, and the descendants of the first colonists were dying too young, and something had to be done. That was the rumor, and it made sense: they could have just killed the protesters and the dissenters, but they made sure to take their oxygen-red, Earth-nourished insides with them. But the truth is nobody really knew why they did what they did. No one from Earth had ever been to Mars since the first colony. Don’t think about it, I said. Just sleep.
• • •
Oh — when you were the four, the day Mom brought home those two white kittens, do you remember? It was the first time in your life we were able to afford cinnamon, and Dad had spent the day making cinnamon cake with fluffy white icing. Mmm, you said, trailing the sweet brown powder on your sticky fingers through your new kitten’s fur. You were confused after that: for a while, the word cinnamon (you pronounced it cimamon) was synonymous with kitten. Cimamon! You’d shout, pointing at our soft white cats. A cimamon!
• • •
You had a new haircut the next time I saw you: cut to the bottom of your earlobes, a stark line of bangs above your eyebrows. You looked like someone more mysterious than my sister, someone I didn’t know. It was a beautiful October day, and we had decided to meet up for coffee.
We didn’t talk about him in line at the coffeeshop, just like we didn’t talk about him when I called to see how you were, like we didn’t mention him when you came over with leftover casseroles. It was dangerous and we were smarter than that.
The barista had the empty-eyed look of an Inhabited. You asked it how its day was. It wasn’t going to answer, of course, but you did that, sometimes; pretended they were still people. A tall man standing behind you coughed obtrusively. It was political, and that’s why you had said it. The Inhabited smiled too broadly and typed your ID number into the system.
We sat outside at a table for two. There were plenty of people to watch, plenty of things to see. You were so beautiful that day, wearing a scarlet coat and matching beret. It was nice to sit and have a coffee with my sister, like something from long ago.
You said, hang on, you’ve got lipstick on your chin, and you leaned in to wipe it off with your thumb. As you were leaning in, you grabbed my shoulder and said softly: I’m doing what he and I planned. I just wanted you to know.
I am. We have it all planned out, I’ll be safe, you’ll never even know. I just had to tell you.
You’re my sister.
We noticed a police officer watching us closely, so you leaned back in your chair and sipped quietly at your coffee.
I need you to do me a favor, you said, no longer whispering but quiet enough that no one around us could hear.
I said nothing. You kept going. I can do it alone, mostly, but there’s just one thing I need help with. I can’t be seen near his old apartment — I think they’re watching me. I need you to drop something off there.
Drop what off?
Just a package.
Sissy, you said, grabbing my hand. Your look was too fervent, and I was afraid the whole coffeeshop could tell we were no longer having a casual conversation. I can’t explain it to you, but this is so important. It could change everything. Okay? Please?
I tried to control my breathing. I was panicked. You can understand that, right? I never was like you. Remember when we were kids and you wanted to jump off the roof of our house? I refused, and you said, come on, if you don’t jump you can’t be part of the Bravey Cat Club, and I shook my head, and you shrugged, and you jumped. You jumped! I still can’t believe you did that, after all these years. One of your shinbones snapped in half. You were so proud of that cast. You used to point to it and whisper, Bravey Cat, and then point at me and say, Scaredy Cat.
Please, you said.
I wanted to help you. I did. Alright.
You smiled and glanced over your shoulder at the policeman. He was no longer watching. I love you, Sissy.
I love you, too.
• • •
I brought yellow roses to the cemetery because they were Mom’s favorite. You brought a trio of brown pebbles from a beach you visited the summer before because they were the exact shade of Dad’s eyes. I hope you remember — you have to remember — how Mom’s expiration date was scheduled for six months later, but she chose to go with Dad anyway, how they turned their car on in the garage and went to sleep. They were lucky. They made it to fifty without a Harvest or Occupation.
We arranged our gifts at their grave. I wrapped my arm around yours and whispered, It’s not too late to stop what you’re doing.
You didn’t reply. Instead, you rested your head on my shoulder.
Do you remember that dress you wore to a dance your sophomore year? you said. The party dress made of green silk?
Yes. That was the first time I wore high heels.
Yeah, well, a couple of months later, I took that dress out of the box in the attic and I cut it to shreds. It was the nicest thing I’d ever seen and it made me so angry to look at it.
I couldn’t think of anything to say, then. Now I’d say, I wish you lived in a place where you could make nice things instead.
You put your hand into your coat pocket and retrieved an anonymous-looking envelope about the size of my palm. You placed it in my hand. I might be gone for a few days, you said. I need you to deliver this to a woman who will be standing outside his apartment. Thursday at five o’clock. Okay? Do you understand?
I nodded. I didn’t ask what was inside the envelope.
As we were walking back to our cars, you placed something else in my hand: a green silk bow, from a dress I’d worn over a decade ago. Thank you, I said. You left.
• • •
Now, here’s where it gets fuzzy. Okay? Are you following?
• • •
I didn’t sleep the night I got home from the cemetery. That was a Tuesday. I woke up late Wednesday afternoon, already sick to my stomach. I had slept through my alarm and missed another shift. I was going to lose another job, I knew, but it was hard to care. They would just assign me another one.
There was half a bottle of whiskey in my kitchen and I drank it, even though I hadn’t eaten anything that day, and it hit me like a palliative. I thought about calling you. What if I did something to stop you? What if I ran out into the street and got hit by a car, and had to go to the hospital, and then you couldn’t just cut and run on your adventure, you couldn’t risk your life because you’d be so focused on saving mine? It was a thought.
I had fallen asleep when there was a knock at my door, and I hoped it was you. It wasn’t you. It was a Patrol Officer in her green uniform, her eyes big as an owl’s.
You didn’t appear at work today, she said.
I overslept. This was strange, I thought. Missing work was not a capital offense.
We are looking for your sister. Have you seen her?
The Officer standing in my doorway looked so unfazed — it terrified me that she wasn’t questioning me harder. I hoped it was because you were a low-level dissenter, and not because they already knew where you were. No, I haven’t. Not for a couple of weeks now.
Did she tell you anything about her plans?
We have reason to believe your sister is a traitor.
I don’t know anything about that.
She didn’t give you anything? A package, maybe, to deliver?
They knew too much. They probably knew I was lying. The Officer just blinked in my silence and walked away, leaving me slightly drunk in my open doorway. I’ll call her, I said to myself, though there was always the chance they were listening in on your line. But I could still call you, just to see if you’d pick up, just to see if you were okay.
The phone rang and rang.
• • •
Wednesday was another night of little sleep; I woke up on Thursday feeling as if my stomach had been stretched tight on a rack. There was nothing I could do to occupy myself. My mind was full of you. This was all your fault. I was so angry — you had talked me into this thing, this impossible, dangerous thing, when all I had ever wanted was to be safe, for you to be safe. I was livid. I was afraid. The hours passed. Two o’clock. Three. Four. If I was going to go, it was time to go.
Written on the envelope was the man’s address. I placed it in my purse, fingering its paper edges as I drove across the city. For the first time I allowed myself to wonder what exactly you were doing. What was in the envelope? How had something so small caused Patrol to show up at my door?
It was four-thirty when I parked in the lot across the street from the complex. I could barely make out the little numbers next to the doors. 407. Yes, that’s it. I saw a tall woman standing over the railing, smoking a cigarette. She was wearing a turban, slim-fitting slacks, and a pair of heels that looked like they cost a month’s rent. I saw her eyes flicker toward my car, then just as quickly away.
Do you know what you asked me to do? Did you consider how hard it would be?
It was four-forty-five when I saw a car drive by — listen — I promise this is the truth — I won’t lie to you, not now — I saw those owl eyes again in the driver’s seat. She had to have known. She was looking for something.
I sat with my hand on the door handle, blood rushing to my head. What would happen if I didn’t do what you asked? It might mean the failure of your mission. Maybe the dissenters would be so unhappy with you that they would ban you from their ranks. I would apologize, again and again, when you came home. I took a deep breath and drove away.
It was the best decision. She would have arrested me, or worse. You would understand if you’d have seen her.
I kept trying to call you but I already knew you wouldn’t answer.
• • •
It had been a week since I’d heard from you — a week of silent, sleepless nights, a week of your line ringing fruitlessly. I decided to stop by your apartment. Maybe you weren’t answering your phone because they were monitoring it, and you were hunkered in your apartment, alone and afraid. I had a key to let myself in.
As I neared your building, I noticed the tall woman I’d seen the week before.
Have you seen your sister lately?
No, I haven’t. That’s why I’m stopping by now.
Don’t bother, she said, stomping the butt of her cigarette with those heels. There’s nobody home. She shook her head, her lip raised in beautiful disdain. I saw you. You didn’t get out of the car.
She was counting on you.
Where is she? What happened to her?
Do you still have it? What she left you?
I reached into my purse and pulled out the little folder. She snatched it and walked away, spitting on the concrete as she left me.
Wait, I called. Where is she?
She didn’t even turn around. I didn’t want to believe her; you’d come to your senses, decided against your involvement in whatever it was, and you were laying low for a while. I rode the elevator up to your floor and let myself in.
Of course, you weren’t in. You left no note. Every single light in the place was on.
• • •
You don’t know how it was. I couldn’t go to the police. Mom and Dad were dead.
I joined the masses at night, huddled crowds shuffling from telephone pole to community board, seekers of people, tacking photographs and phone numbers, desperate. I put your face up on fliers among it all.
When I’d pass by them the next day, they’d all be gone.
• • •
I didn’t give up. That’s what I need you to know. Okay? If I thought walking into Town Hall and slitting my wrists would have gotten you home, the pink meat of me opened up for the love of you, then I would’ve done it. I wouldn’t fail you again. Never.
I just need you to know.
• • •
A month or so after I last saw you, I had to go in for a Detox. I remember it was the first time in a while I’d put on anything besides pajamas. They barely stood up. I’d not been eating. Where were you?
I came to Town Hall and they had me undress. I caught a glimpse of myself in the two-way mirror and shivered. Worse than dead, I looked. Some sort of sniveling grief-creature. A man in a hazmat suit came in. He asked me a few muffled questions about my health. I answered in short fragments. Then I had a thought.
I have a sister, I said.
He had a friendly smile. Older or younger?
Two years younger. I paused, glanced around the room; no cameras, it looked like, but it’s really impossible to know. She’s been missing over a month.
He froze, but I decided to push on. I’ve been looking everywhere. I can’t —
I can’t be without her. Do you know any place I could go to find her?
I’m sorry, he said, and he had one of those faces where I could see he meant it. My husband, too.
It had been a very long time since I’d felt sorry for someone else. How long? I asked him.
It was a crazy thought, I knew it was; but still, I couldn’t help but think of that man on your couch, how he had been somebody’s husband, how he, too, had left someone behind. Even if it weren’t this man, it was someone like him. Someone like me. I was crushed he didn’t have a solution, a fairy ring I could step into to find you; he also made me feel less alone. I held out my hand and moved to place it on his arm, but he flinched away. We didn’t say another word to each other as he sprayed me down.
• • •
The ships first came when you were seven, after you’d lost your front tooth, and you kept flicking your tongue through the gap, a sudden shock of pink flashing through the white.
“Wow,” you said, pointing at the explosion of lights on the horizon, a spectrum of shimmering pastels and colors. In the flicker of pink and lavender and soft blue, your eyes glimmered, and I remember trying to reconcile that purest of joys with the sound of our parents’ tears behind us.
• • •
It was raining the night you came home — another day of nothing, of so many cigarettes burnt down into ash. I must have woken up. I must have eaten something. I hadn’t received any word of a new work assignment. I was on the verge of losing power, internet, my apartment.
I heard a knock at the door. It was 2 a.m. I knew there was nothing in this world that could be out that time of night without them knowing about it. I also knew I had no choice but to open the door.
It was you. But of course you know that. Right? You had on a red sweater, one I recognized. I thought I had seen it in your closet, the many times I visited when you were gone, running my hands through all the colors, gathering the fabric and burying my face in it. I was afraid to believe it was you and so I reached out and gripped your shoulders hard, my fingers going white around my nails. But it was you. Really.
Where have you been? I said. Are you hurt?
You smiled, and as hard as I tried, as hard as I keep trying, you didn’t say a word. Won’t say a word. You are inhabited like a house, and I don’t know what’s living there anymore.
• • •
You were my sister once. You remember.
• • •
Copyright © 2020 by Paige Powell