ㅤI first noticed the change when Amy stopped cutting her fingernails. We were in the back seat of the car on the way home from an overcast day at the beach. Our parents had had a loud argument in the queue for the ice cream stand, so we drove in silence. The only sound was the anxious, rhythmic click of Amy’s nails against the car door. My father’s voice came from the driver’s seat.
ㅤ“Amy. Stop that.” The rhythm ceased, incomplete. Light from the window behind her shone through the overhanging ends of her fingernails and I could see the dirt underneath. She retreated her hands deep into her jacket pockets. I tapped her leg gently, and mouthed so our parents couldn’t hear.
ㅤ“You okay?” She nodded. “Are you sure?”
ㅤ“I’ll tell you later,” she mouthed back, nodding towards the back of the front seats.
ㅤAt home, Amy brought me to her bedroom and shut the door behind us. She drew a pair of nail scissors from her dresser drawer and cut off the corner of the nail on her little finger, struggling to keep her hands steady as she did so. For a while I saw nothing, and then the tiniest trail of smoke started winding its way from underneath her nail, as it does from a just-extinguished match. I was speechless for a moment.
ㅤ“Have you shown anyone else?”
ㅤ“What did they say?”
ㅤ“That they couldn’t do anything. They said everyone has bad days sometimes.”
ㅤThe smoke from her fingers was soon not the only symptom. Ripples leaked out of her skin when she stared into space for too long, and trickled from buttonholes when she didn’t focus on trying to keep them in. When I went to check on her at night, I could see the pattern of her pillowcase through the side of her head. Her whole body was falling apart, but not in such a dramatic, noticeable way as the patient with twisted bones and cracked skin. Amy’s change was like that of early morning mist on a sunny day: diminishing each time you look out of the window.
ㅤOnce a week we took the bus together to the hospital, listening to my iPod with one headphone each. I only had a handful of albums that I had ripped from our dad’s old CDs. We found the heavy guitar and crashing drums of AC/DC and Led Zeppelin blended well with the serene suburban landscape that rolled past the windows.
ㅤWe invented life stories for each of the bus’ passengers. We filled narratives with secret love affairs and undercover espionage. I kept her distracted as long as I could, but Amy would always get quiet as we neared the hospital.
ㅤ“It’ll be fine Amy, they’re here to help you,” I said.
ㅤ“It doesn’t feel like it.” She drummed her fingers on the window frame.
ㅤ“They’re trying their best.”
ㅤ“They think I’m faking it.” I opened my mouth to say something, then closed it. She was right.
ㅤAmy did her best to pretend nothing was wrong, but I noticed her voice drop to a whisper to keep the smoke from seeping between her teeth. Her hair became unkempt when the repetitive motion of brushing it let out plumes from her shirt sleeves. I pulled her away from open windows and let her borrow my jacket when the wind got so strong that I thought she might blow away, but her body was so unstable that she struggled to walk with the heavy garment over her shoulders.
ㅤThere was nothing I could do but assure her that I would help as best I could. She was my sister, I had to. I bought her a pill case using some birthday money I had saved. It was shaped like a cat’s face, with little compartments in the ears marked with days of the week.
ㅤ“I love it, Jack, thank you,” she said, and she hugged me as tightly as she could.
ㅤThe next week, Amy and I sat across from each other in our grandmother’s living room. The stuffy furnishings kept the air still so the smoke seeping from Amy’s collar collected over the coffee table. My grandmother turned to me.
ㅤ“Now, Jack, you are studying for your A-levels, is that right?”
ㅤ“Yes, and Amy is taking her GCSEs this summer.”
ㅤ“Yes of course.” Her eyes flicked upwards and she frowned at the dark cloud. “And your mother tells me that you’re applying to St Andrew’s for university. That’ll be nice, up in Scotland.”
ㅤ“That’s right. You know Grandma, Amy’s been in hospital this week.”
ㅤ“Jack, we don’t want to talk about that now. Tell me about-” I cut her off.
ㅤ“When would be a good time to talk about it?” The old woman pursed her lips and gave me a hard stare. She hadn’t looked at Amy once. With a final disapproving look towards the ceiling, she excused herself to check on the lasagne in the oven.
ㅤAmy came to sit next to me on the sofa, and I apologised for embarrassing her. She said nothing, but tucked her legs up behind her and leaned close. I saw a tear drift up past my face and lose itself in the light fixture. I let out a tear myself, which dragged downwards past my nose, for although her head was resting on my chest, I could barely feel a thing.
ㅤOne day a policeman came to the door. He told us that Amy's school uniform had been found in a crumpled pile in the middle of the pavement a few streets away. One shoe ahead of the other, her shoulder bag in between them. There were no leads to investigate. The only abnormality was a slight grey residue left on the inside of her socks.
ㅤAfter that, Amy wasn’t mentioned much by anyone, and when she was, they called her disappearance “unfortunate” and “unavoidable”. At the funeral they buried an empty coffin. It was a small ceremony, just family. Later, I rescued the pill case from her bedroom before my mother could throw it away. The compartments for Monday and Tuesday were empty, and the rest still full.
ㅤThat night I thought about who she could have been. It reminded me of the game we played on the bus. I invented a thousand different futures for Amy. The girl who never got to live her life. My sister.