The following is a portion of an in-progress novel. Comments and feedback are appreciated.
Denise Fox’s sister, Haley, has recently been murdered.
My earliest memory involves my sister Haley.
When I was three, I had a ceramic piggy bank sitting on top of my dresser, a pastel green, totally-70s number that probably came from a yard sale. I must have wanted to play with it, because I pulled my miniature wicker rocking chair over to the dresser’s edge and stood on it, arms outstretched, reaching desperately for that pig. I was able to crook a finger around one of his front legs, but as I shifted my weight to get a better grip, the chair moved beneath my feet and I fell. My finger pulled the bank, which tottered on the side of the dresser for a moment and then dropped, shattering on the thinly carpeted floor of my bedroom. Coins and shards of painted ceramic scattered.
My mother, summoned by the noise, began fluttering around, brandishing a broom and delivering a high-pitched monologue that began as concerned inquiry, morphed into parental rebuke, and then settled on frustrated self-pity. I watched her quietly, my face hot and wet with tears, waiting for her to reassemble my bank, knowing she would make everything whole. When Mom dumped the broken pieces into a garbage bag, I realized for the first time that some things, once broken, can never be repaired. I began to wail.
Mom sat me on my bed and spoke softly, telling me that I was okay. I hadn’t been seriously hurt in the fall; the mess was all gone. I didn’t have the words, at three, to express why I was really upset.
Haley stood in the doorway watching our mother attempt to console me. She had been in the dining room, working on her kindergarten homework, coloring a large letter E. She said nothing. I saw the twirl of her skirt as she ran back to her work.
Two days later, Haley called me into her room. She had gone directly there after school, ignoring our usual routine of watching DuckTales and Chip ‘n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers. Her floor was covered in scraps of construction paper and on her bed sat scissors, Scotch tape, and a black marker. In her hands, she held a shoebox wrapped in green paper. A roughly drawn face hung perilously on one of the box’s narrow ends. It was a pig, or at least Haley’s re-imagination of one. There was a hole cut roughly from the top of the box–a place for me to deposit my money–and after I squealed with delight, we put all of my coins in to the pig and placed it on the dresser.
“This one won’t break when you try to play with it,” she reassured me.
I used that shoebox piggy bank until I went away to college. My mom threw it out during my first semester, and I could have killed her for it. The green paper had long since faded to a dull grey, and the hole in the top had grown large enough that I could reach inside to scoop up the change I needed, but that bank was love, above all else.
Haley was a good playmate–attentive and giving, willing to follow along with my suggestions. The typical older sister/younger sister dynamic never applied to us. She treated me as an equal, not an underling. I don’t remember fighting over toys or getting my hair pulled or being told to mind my own business. All of those things probably happened–she wasn’t the Second Coming of Christ, after all–but nothing traumatic jumps out at me.
It wasn’t until I started attending elementary school that I realized what a pain in the ass Haley could be. Not that she had changed, mind you. No, she remained cheerful, kind, loving Haley. But now I found myself traveling in the wake of her reputation, always held up and examined for comparison to my older sister and always found lacking.
The school year would begin with the teacher paying extra attention to me, always smiling, a slight lilt to her voice. I was special for a time, the new Fox girl who looks so much like her big sister. And then, after a quarter or so, the smiles were gone and the voices were flat, and I was moved away from the teacher and to the middle of the room. I wasn’t bad, or stupid, or lazy. I was just ordinary, a B-plus kid stuck with an A-plus sister. I loved Haley, but I began to look for chances to vent my frustration towards her.
When I was in second grade, my parents allowed her to buy a Siamese fighting fish with her allowance. She named him Groucho and talked about him as if he were another sibling. She bought a plastic castle for him to hide in and kept his bowl clean and clear. One Sunday, I overheard my parents bragged to their friends about sweet, responsible Haley and her fish. When they spoke of me, their praise was qualified with adverbs like Usually and Mostly and Almost. That night, I snuck into her room while she practiced piano downstairs, and I overfed her fish. She found him dead the next morning, and she wept bitterly for ten minutes, then pulled herself together and flushed Groucho in a toilet paper shroud that read “A Good Fish.” She never replaced him.
Looking back, I realize that my parents were wrong. If you were comparing me to Haley, I wasn’t an Almost. I was a Nope, a Failure, a Disappointment. I view the young me the same way my teachers did–as an unworthy follow-up.
My therapist tells me I’m too hard on myself, that the murders have colored my memories, erasing subtleties. I am, she says, remembering my own judgments about Haley and myself as common perceptions held by everyone who knew both of us. Maybe she’s right, but I can’t forgive myself, not when I never apologized to her when she could hear me.
And I don’t mean the fish, either. I’m talking about Alvin.
She started dating him her freshman year at Johns Hopkins. His mother had died when he was young, and his dad was not in the picture, so when the Thanksgiving break rolled around, she brought him home to stay on our couch. He was handsome, with curly brown hair that coiled out in all directions and a closely trimmed goatee. He must have weighed less than 150 pounds then, a bit too thin for his height, which was over six feet. The top of her head barely came up to his shoulder, but they looked good together. Haley wore her dirty-blonde hair long then, tucked behind her ears to frame her soft, warm features. She had the body of a gymnast, thin and compact, not an ounce of fat. (I, on the other hand, had an ass rounded out from eating too many cookies.)
After dinner, the three of us drove to the Blockbuster and rented a movie, some piece of crap horror film about a snowman who kills people. My parents went to bed early, leaving us to our movie.
“You wanna smoke?,” he asked Haley, pulling a small bag of weed out of his pocket. I waited for her to throw him out, but she giggled and nodded. I hadn’t expected that response from Perfect Haley, but perhaps I should have. They looked at me.
“Well, yeah,” I said. It wasn’t my first time. Being a disappointment isn’t all hard work, after all.
Alvin rolled a joint while Haley grabbed a lighter, and then we took turns hitting the trees in the bathroom with the exhaust fan running. I was good and baked before we put the movie on.
Weed makes me prone to laughing fits–always has. It’s perfect for a B-level horror movie, where I can revel in bad acting and terrible effects. Haley, though, tended to prefer more solitary trips, sitting in the dark with her headphones on, riding the music. She wasn’t enjoying the movie, so halfway through she apologized to her boyfriend and kissed him goodnight, heading off to her room and her own head-space. I barely noticed her leaving.
The two of us kept watching the movie, which got worse and worse. Alvin has a sharp sense of humor in the most sober of moments, and it is only enhanced by marijuana. My body convulsed with laughter, it rocked and fell over, and the back of my head ended up in Alvin’s lap. I was laughing so hard that I could barely breathe. I stayed there, on top of him, trying to catch my breath.
He wasn’t trying to do anything. He kept his hands to himself and his eyes on the television, but I could feel him getting hard, which made me laugh even more. I rolled over to examine his hard-on’s outline. I poked at it, the way a child might poke a hornet’s nest with a stick. I couldn’t stop laughing.
“Don’t do that,” he said, but he was chuckling, too. I poked him again. He was really hard now. “Denise, come on…”
“Well, what do we have here?,” I asked, unbuttoning his khakis. He tried to brush my hands away, but I already had one hand inside his underwear, stroking him. He gave up.
This was not the start of a life-long affair. It was a one-time fuck on a couch twenty years ago, quick and dirty. We didn’t get fully undressed, didn’t kiss, didn’t cuddle afterwards. He pulled out and came on my thigh, and I wiped it up with a sock, and then we finished the movie.
In the morning, I slept in and came down late for breakfast. Haley and Alvin were sitting together and she was forcing him to try quiche, holding out a forkful and making airplane sounds as she maneuvered it into his mouth. She saw me and smiled.
“Alvin said the end of the movie was better than the beginning,” she said. “Sorry I bailed. I just wasn’t feeling it.”
If Alvin had been just another guy, someone she dated for a few months and then cut loose, maybe my stomach wouldn’t drop out every time I see her picture. Betrayal is not a simple Yes or No concept. It varies in intensity, from killing a pet fish to fucking your sister’s future husband.
I should have told her that morning,while his mouth was full of quiche. I should have faced the consequences, but I was scared. Not physically frightened–Haley wasn’t violent. No, what I was scared of was the idea that the truth would make me a Disappointment to her, too.
And that first moment of dishonest silence bred the next, and the next, until I found myself toasting their marriage as the maid of honor and I thought the time for honesty had long since passed. Only years later, when the phone rang in the middle of the night and my father was crying on the other end, did I realize what Too Late really meant.