“I killed you again last night.” My sister’s breathy whisper tapped my cheek like fingertips as she hovered above my face.
The mattress gave slightly under her wafer frame as she crawled onto the bed, eased behind me, then slid underneath the covers. With sleep leaden limbs I brushed her black hair off of my neck, rolled around to face her, and blinked to fight off the crusts of sleep.
When her face took shape in front of me I noticed first the indigo circles that haloed her green eyes, then the muted pallor of her already fair skin. I yawned, smacked my lips and mumbled, “What happened this time?”
Ellie cupped her hands under her chin and whispered. “It’s bad, Chloe. I see blood all over. It’s on my hands. It’s everywhere. And you’re on the ground, covered in it. It’s horrible.” She choked back a sob as her eyes clenched shut. Her eyeballs twitched behind her swollen lids, fighting to conjure hidden details from her fitful memory.
I waited patiently while she calmed down. When she finally opened her eyes again, we stared at each other face-to-face in my twin bed, almost touching. I could see each wet eyelash clump fresh from tears. I had an irrational urge to run my finger down the bridge of her nose. I wanted to touch her face and prove to myself that she was still my normal big sister. But I kept my hands curled under my chin.
The dreams used to be about what presents we were going to get, and she told me the morning of my roller skating accident that I would hurt myself.
But then she started predicting the headline news, weeks in advance; dead bodies covering a field from a plane that crashed and killed every passenger on board. In another one a man stabbed a woman repeatedly. That story was on the news the following day. She described in detail each place he stabbed her; the face, hands, stomach, chest, and legs. She said there was so much blood she could taste it.
Those dreams were bad. They got worse. She started dreaming about killing me a week ago.
“It’s okay. You know it’s not going to happen, right?” I smoothed the duvet over both of us, busied myself with tucking it under my legs as I tried to sound convincing.
Ellie didn’t say anything. She just hugged me tighter.
“Maybe we should, you know, tell someone. We could tell her.”
“No!” She squeezed my middle tight. “We’re not telling her. She already sent you to therapy for, well, for being you, and then you did that stupid thing with the fish tank.”
“It wasn’t because of the fish tank,” I spat out defensively.
“Whatever. I’m just saying if I told her I was having dreams about killing you, that I dreamt stuff all the time that ended up coming true, well, she’d give me a one way ticket to the loony bin. And she’d probably send you away to that boarding school just for good measure. We’re not telling anyone.” When I didn’t respond she knocked her head into mine lightly for emphasis. “We’re not telling anyone right?”
“Fine. I won’t say anything.”
Her arms relaxed around me as she sighed her relief.
“Good. Now let’s get a little more sleep. We have to be up in a few hours. I want to be rested for the trip.”
By nine that morning we were at the airport loading our luggage onto the weighing stand as our mother checked our boarding passes with the airline attendant.
When Ellie woke she covered up her night terror as she would apply cherry lip smackers lip gloss, her mask of teenage ambivalence securely in place as she flung her Walkman headphones over her shoulder and heaved her bag onto the weigh station.
My suitcase was ginormous. I wrestled with it, leaned back on my heels, propped the suitcase on my leg, and then flung with the force of my lower body. The unyielding suitcase sent me flying forward; the handle like a Heimlich into my stomach. I stubbornly refused to allow the struggle to end with the suitcase the victor. I gritted my teeth and grabbed onto the handle with both hands and grunted as I heaved.
Our mother’s judgmental sigh poked at my shortcomings. “For goodness sake, Chloe.”
The hairs on my neck raised in visceral reaction to her scrutiny. I wouldn’t be defeated by her, or a bag. I wrapped my small hands tight around the brown leather handle and fought back tears. “I can do it. Just give me a minute.” I pulled with all of my strength, with shoulders and arms and even neck muscles flexed.
The suitcase barely left the ground. My concentrated stare locked on the suitcase. If my physical strength wasn’t enough perhaps I could move it through force of will.
I heard the rustling of papers with her exaggerated movements as she packed up the airline receipt info. Her high pitched, irritated voice shot at Ellie instead. “Why won’t you help your sister with her bags? Can’t you see that she can’t lift them by herself?”
Just as Ellie moved closer to me, a baggage handler behind the booth stopped mid-throw and hurried to us. He reached me in synch with Ellie. “Can I help you with that, kid?” He obviously addressed me, no man ever called Ellie “kid”.
His gaze locked on Ellie as she towered a foot or more above me. She leaned close and her dark hair dropped on my forehead. I brushed it away, perturbed, as she nudged me aside.
She hadn’t even reached for the handle when the baggage guy frantically stumbled over the weight stand, grabbed the suitcase, and threw it behind him. He grinned, an obnoxious, proud smile at her like he had just discovered fire; his man arms hung at his sides. I openly gawked and waited for him to beat his chest and hoot like an ape.
Ellie purred, “Thank you.” Then she turned on me. “What the hell did you put in there?”
I did my best to avoid answering her. I grabbed my nylon navy backpack off of the ground and slung it over my shoulders, wrestled my arms through the straps as I mumbled. “Nothing. We better be going.”
“Chloe?” She had a particularly nasty habit of saying only my name, but in such a way to imply question or anger or impatience -the moods were endless. I hated how much she could convey with just my name.
“Ellie.” When I tried to do it back to her I just sounded whiney. “Nothing. Let’s just go, okay.”
Ellie dropped her interrogation efforts and slung her black leather backpack over her shoulders. With both of us outfitted in our backpacks we turned to find our mother. She stood a few feet away, rummaging in her purse. She concentrated on her one task so hard I worried she had lost her keys and was maybe stranded at the airport, or worse, coming with us on the plane.
When we approached she lifted her head out of her leather bag and looked up at us, a curious mix of surprise and annoyance passed over her finely sculpted features – her usual expression.
She bounced her shoulders in that uncomfortable tick of hers and smoothed the imaginary wrinkles on her cream suit, as if the strain of getting rid of her two daughters for the summer stifled even her clothes.
I grabbed onto Ellie’s hand, a show of unified strength, and told her she should go home. We would be fine. No need to go through security with us, and sit with us the next hour until our plane took off.
She looked to Ellie for reassurance. “You girls will be okay then? You don’t need me to stay?”
The obligatory questions flowed out of her like a well-rehearsed script. I knew it was more of a statement, going through the motions of her duty as our mother. Just like it was her duty to sign our report cards, and make sure the refrigerator was well stocked. And just like the signed report cards were turned in without her ever asking what classes we enjoyed the most, or which book I finally decided to make my three dimensional diorama project out of (Anne of Green Gables) she easily left us at the airport alone.
Not two seconds after we got past security Ellie trotted off with nothing more than a careless, “Gotta run to the bathroom. Meet you at the gate.”
I should’ve gone with her. But I wanted to scout out exactly where the gate was. I wanted to sit down and read my book. I was tired and I wanted to relax knowing that I was exactly where I needed to be.
The first thirty minutes of her absence didn’t bother me. I found the gate easily then an empty seat right near the entrance to the hallway that led to the plane. There was no way I could miss the boarding line up. We had plenty of time.
No need to worry.
I watched the people around me. One woman cradled her baby in her lap and bounced her knees softly while the baby made little, “Wu wu” sounds. An elderly couple sat off by the window, each stared down at their respective newspapers. A small crowd of nameless people perched on the same metal chairs as me.
I absently stared out the window and watched the workers toss luggage into the enormous belly of the airplane. It was sunny outside but the interior of the airport was a stark contrast, outfitted in gray and black. I don’t know why they didn’t add more color to airports. It’s almost as if the airlines wanted passengers to be somber before they got on a plane – the gray’s goal to keep the mood subdued. I found flying across states in a huge metal tube with hundreds of strangers plenty somber - terrifying even. It would be such a small token of assurance on the part of the airline to add a rainbow of color here and there to keep everyone’s spirits buoyant.
While I contemplated the interior decorators motivations I checked my watch and that’s when I first started to panic. Ellie had been gone for over forty minutes. The woman at the check-in booth crackled over the loudspeaker, “Flight 672 with service to Denver will begin boarding. We would like to welcome our First Class passengers, as well as any of you traveling with infants, or those of you who may need additional time seating.”
Ellie still wasn’t back. Just thinking about what I would have to tell our mother was enough to make my stomach roll. “We didn’t get on the plane like I told you we would because Ellie ran off as soon as you left us and I sat there in the terminal too scared to do anything about it.”
This will be my fault somehow. Even though I knew our mother didn’t really want to wait around at the airport with us.
Tick, tick, tick. I couldn’t help but look down at my watch again. I wondered what they did to people who missed their flights. Would they refund our money? Put us on another plane? Yell at us?
I wrung my watch around and around and around on my tiny wrist, as if spinning my white swatch watch would indeed slow down time itself. I closed my eyes and sucked in a deep breath, like my therapist said.
Breathe in deep, fill your body with calm; expel the air, rid your body of stress.
What a load of cheese biscuits. All breathing did was fill your lungs with a few liters of air so you could remain upright and conscious. Unless you’re an adult with above normal lung capacity only then, just maybe, you could breathe in about 6 liters, but that’s max.
I watched a medical show once on smokers (when I’d found Ellie smoking a clove cigarette in the backyard) and they tested lung capacity by making the people blow into a tube which measured the amount of air inhaled and expelled. The people sealed their lips around this tube and blew so hard that the veins in their foreheads popped out.
I immediately warned Ellie she could be at risk for severe lung depletion if she continued to smoke. She told me to, “Get a grip.”
I wanted to test out my own lungs, just to make sure everything was functioning as it should. I found some tubing from the fish tank supplies kept underneath the black cabinet which held the fifty gallon salt water tank, hooked it up to the air filter and blew — hard.
I think I have abnormally high lung capacity, especially for someone as small as I am. That air filter didn’t stand a chance.
The fish exploded in small tidal wave circles, frantic by the blast of bubbles that assaulted their tepid home. Our mother reacted in much the same way when she discovered the mess of erupted water, and the broken air filter.
I tried to calm down now, while I waited for Ellie, by practicing my breathing techniques again. But it wasn’t working — the breathing and the therapy visits. Not that the two were dependent factors. I had to go to therapy because our mother said I didn’t do “normal” things, and because I kept calling her “Our Mother”.
And maybe because once I spent an entire day worrying about the fact that people’s noses and ears never stop growing. My therapist wanted to spend considerable time on that topic which later made me wonder if she secretly worried about the same thing. But all I thought about then was the fact that the waiting area was devoid of the one person that desperately needed to be there — Ellie.
One shrug of her shoulders and a scolding of, “Chloe take a chill,” would calm me down more than breathing into hoses, tubes, oxygen masks, paper bags, bubble blowers, balloons, or any device designed to measure the average 12-20 breaths per minute.
At that moment, I probably only completed about 5-10 breaths per minute because with every second that she didn’t show up I held my breath. I only realized this when my lungs rebelled against my tense core muscles and expelled the stale air on their own volition.
If she were here I would relax. Ellie possessed the perfect ratio of older sister scorn and impatience and benevolence.
And if she showed up right now I’d forget that she spilled bleach on my favorite denim shorts.
I opened one eye and peaked at my swatch, only one minute left. Still no sign of her. I held my watch up to my ear to make sure it still worked. I heard the faintest “tick” and released another batch of imprisoned air with my frustration.
I hung my chin to my chest and stared into my lap. My Sweet Valley High paperback slid off my thighs as I shifted uncomfortably in the padded metal seat. It was the Spring Break special edition that came out in March. I had the Spring Break and the Malibu Summer Super Editions. I was rereading them both. I grabbed the book and held it to my chest.
The book was good, but they’re always the same with the twins. Elizabeth, the good and responsible and level headed twin; and Jessica, the bad and selfish and thought the world revolved around her when, okay, so sometimes it did but that didn’t mean you should just take advantage of it twin, were always at odds but also best friends.
I liked to think even though Ellie is two and a half years older than me; we are kind of like the twins. Not only do we look alike, we are also completely different.
I lived in a small corner of Ellie’s shadow. Ellie is the Eiffel tower, and I’m one of those Eiffel tower key chains you get as a souvenir for the neighbor who watched your dog while you were on vacation because they certainly deserved a gift for their trouble especially since they couldn’t witness the beauty of the original.
And if she didn’t show up in exactly two minutes, I was going to kill her.
It shouldn’t surprise me, her leaving me alone - not checking in to make sure I was okay. None of it should’ve surprised me.
But as I sat at our gate, scared to move and search her out, scared to ask for help and call attention to the fact that I was alone, and scared that she really wouldn’t make it back in time, I was, yes, a little surprised by it all.
The two women at the check-in booth looked over at me. They pointed and whispered to each other, conspired over what form of torture to implement on me for holding up the departure as I inevitably would.
Maybe they put kids who miss planes in a holding cell. They would probably make me find my suitcase and pull it off of the plane all by myself then stick me somewhere that smelled like stale cigarettes and cleaning products, while they called Our Mother.
Maybe I won’t even tell them my name.
The brown haired attendant wore a stiff navy blazer and looked too uncomfortable to be friendly. I didn’t want to talk to either one of them so I held my book up a little higher in an obvious effort to ignore them.
If she showed up right now I would forgive her for forgetting me last week after school and making me walk home alone.
I closed my eyes, counted to ten, opened them and scanned the crowd, still no sign of her.
I subtly peaked over the top of my book. The women at the booth had been staring at me on and off ever since I sat down by myself. I responded by avoiding all eye contact and sticking my nose further into my Sweet Valley High book. In my experience adults were happy to ignore you if you stayed quiet.
So I didn’t say anything.
All of the people around me lined up as the brown haired one chirped over the speaker that they would begin boarding for all passengers.
The mood changed dramatically in the waiting area. The woman wildly wrestled with her screaming infant. The elderly couple argued over who should take which carry-on bag. The sea of people synchronized their movements as everyone stood, grabbed bags, and walked toward the mouth of the boarding ramp.
I remained rooted to my seat, with my breaths coming out fast, probably 25-30 per minute, and scanned the crowd, but still no sign of her.
I didn’t know what to do.
My nervous stomach acid rose high up in my esophagus, gurgling at the base of my throat. I swallowed.
Okay, last chance. If she showed up right now I would completely forget that every boy I have even remotely ever had a crush on has liked her instead. I will even forget about the time she told me I was adopted (which maybe wouldn’t be a bad thing for me). I would just let it all go.
I squeezed my eyes shut and strained all of my mental energy on willing her to appear. I visualized her standing in front of me, opened my eyes.
Instead the navy suited airport woman who apparently would not be ignored any longer, walked over to me with a smile plastered on top of her made-up face, her hair wrapped in a bun so tight the corners of her eyes pulled back. She leaned over me, and only then did I unwillingly look up, direct eye contact.
“Would you like a chaperone to help you get on the plane, sweetie?”
Her words forced my shoulders back in defense. I could’ve simply explained that my parents wouldn’t leave me in an airport without a chaperone. I could’ve just as easily told her that I wasn’t traveling alone and could they please, please, please hold the plane while I went and searched for my stupid sister.
But she asked me if I wanted a “chaperone” like I was a little kid. I didn’t need assistance getting on a plane. I was little, not helpless. The Tasmanian devil is only the size of a small dog but the largest carnivorous marsupial on the planet. They are muscular and small and mean.
I was about to go Tasmanian devil on the airport woman.
Instead of explaining my situation in a calm manner I barked, “I’m twelve,” (okay, more like eleven and a half but twelve sounded so much more grown up).
She paused with her mouth open as if to argue, perhaps thinking I’m not only small but incompetent at counting, but then her gaze shot to something over my shoulder and she involuntarily straightened herself up erect and tall.
I could tell from the woman’s face that Ellie approached even though she came at me from behind. The attendant’s mouth dropped a little lower and she smoothed her hands over herself in an involuntary flutter to flatten her stomach – which is one of the typical female reactions when seeing Ellie for the first time. Women fluttered and preened; men stared with heavy lids.
Ellie, who had only recently turned 14, elicited inappropriate reactions from both genders. I reasoned it wasn’t her fault. She was simply too beautiful to comprehend in stillness.
Her smooth, low voice cooed behind me. “Is there a problem?” Ellie sat beside me in the black padded chair, folded one excruciatingly long leg over the other and grabbed my hand.
The woman smiled tightly. “No. I was just making sure she wasn’t traveling alone.”
“Nope, she’s with me.”
I glared at her out of the corner of my eye. Ellie had painted on a full face of eyeliner, shadow, mascara, blush, and red lips. Our Mother doesn’t let her wear make-up, the only truly wise adult rule she enforced on her teenage daughter.
Ellie was already taller than most women I knew, and could easily pass for eighteen - or twenty five when she wore make-up.
The woman kept her forced smile in place and told us, “girls,” to have a pleasant trip. She let her stare weigh on Ellie when she said “girls”, a direct challenge she wouldn’t be fooled by Ellie’s woman costume.
Then she turned on her heel and walked away from us, back to the check-in booth.
Ellie stretched out her legs to cross at the ankles and her denim mini-skirt edged slightly higher up her thigh as she sunk in the chair.
I pushed her hand away. “Don’t get comfortable. They’re boarding.”
Her head swiveled to me. “You’re mad?”
“Of course I’m mad. You left me!”
My bottom lip quivered but I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of knowing her absence scared me so I bit my lip and internally counted to ten.
Ellie straightened from her slouch and leaned forward to pick up my carry-on. “Come on, Peanut let’s go.”
I followed her to the boarding line, stiff with annoyance. As we walked towards the mouth of the plane she tried to hold onto my hand but I yanked it away.
“Come on, Chloe. Please don’t be mad at me.”
“You were gone the whole time. What if you got lost, or didn’t make it back on time?”
“I’m not a baby. I’m older than you Miss Smarty and I don’t need you to take care of me.” Then she spun away from me and stepped into the plane.
With tight lips and arms close to my sides, I marched like a good little soldier, right behind her.
And I would spend the next fifteen years wondering if all our lives would have been better if we really had missed that plane…
Enemy Among Us By Natalie K. French. Coming Spring 2013…