My older sister moved back home after a month with a new accent and a listless gaze. She went away to forge new life for herself in Chicago when she was fifteen and returned without hope, her expression drawn and sad, her wallet full but her face empty. After she got back I’d wake up sometimes at night, from the heat, and her bed would be empty.
She and I didn’t go to school anymore, not for years. The superintendents didn’t think it was worth climbing the hill to check on us kids. It is hard to climb a thorny hill and convince a father that his daughters ought not to be working but learning; it is easy to pass by in a plush silver car. We used to go, when Mom was still alive and the bus still came way out here, but now we just helped Dad around the property, digging for water, stringing up barbed wire, driving skinny cow after skinny cow out of the wilted cabbage and tomato plants behind our house. Every day she grew thinner and her skin paler.
“I like it out here,” I told her, one golden afternoon only a few weeks after she came home. We were sitting together watching the sun fall over the craggy, scratchy boulders in the distance, out past the lonely highway.
“Yeah?” she said, her voice hollow. Her expression was tight, like she was trying to remember something.
“It’s pretty.” I pulled my bare feet up into a pretzel and started plucking thorns out of the pads of my toes.
“Yeah?” Her eyes seemed to focus for a second. “Well, rich people live farther into the wilderness, where they can’t even see the highway—or people like us.”
“They have nice, big houses. Leather furniture. Everyone has their own bedrooms. Big windows where you can watch the sunset. And sometimes they have dishwashers.”
“How do you know?”
“I saw it in Chicago,” she said, rubbing her face. Her eyes looked tired, her skin grey and damaged. “Everybody had one. Red Barn only hired me because their dishwasher machine would take an hour to run and they needed plates and things sooner.”
“An hour?” I said slowly.
“You only have to scrape the food off,” she said matter-of-factly. “Then you put the plates into the machine and close it.”
“Wow.” I returned to watching the cars come one at a time down the narrow strip of asphalt, just half a mile from our trailer home.
“What’s today?” she asked me suddenly. She didn’t turn to ask; she kept staring after the moving cars as they disappeared, silhouetted against the setting sun. It looked like the light was blinding her, because tears formed on the rims of her eyelids, but she didn’t seem to care.
I shrugged. We didn’t have church to mark Sundays for us, and since we didn’t go to school…
“You don’t know?”
“I—I just can’t remember.”
“Why do you want to know?”
Her mouth opened and nothing came out.
We sat in silence. The sun was half gone, illuminating the hillocks and reddish-brown arid pasture with a golden flame of color.
“It is sort of pretty, isn’t it?” she said.
“No view like this in Chicago, huh?”
She let a smile creep over her face. “Nah, but in Chicago, people… moved.”
She paused, searching for words. “Around. Libraries. Theater, if you wanted. Restaurants, for ice cream. School. Out of your parents’ house. Moving around. Life.”
I looked at her face, brushed pure gold by the sun and touched with silver by the chilly shadow of our lonely dust-colored trailer home in the distance. There was a tear track on her illuminated cheek. “I just…” she said, then shook her head.
“What’s for dinner?” I asked her.
“Mac n’ cheese,” she said, lifting her thigh to brush the gravel and dirt from her skin. It was patterned red with the pressure of the ground. She let out a sigh and slouched back over, fiddling with a long thorny blade of grass. “In Chicago I could walk downtown and go into a hall and listen to someone sing.”
“Oh,” I said, thinking hard.
We shivered together, all of a sudden. The wind was chill in contrast to the warm earth and dying sun.
“Let’s go in,” I said.
“I like the cold.”
She sighed, exasperated. “I think better when I’m cold.”
I resisted saying “Why?” again, but only barely. Wind crested the hill on which we sat, our shoulders pressed together, bare skin warming bare skin, and the wind pulled and pushed at our hair. Tendrils mixed together and when the wind died to a breeze it was all tangled and her face looked wild and a little more fearless. I kept my eyes down untangling my hair and when I looked up again, when the breeze was dead, her face had returned to its familiar wan, pale expression.
“Sometimes,” she said, “I just wanna pull on a jacket and walk to wherever those cars are going.”
“Is that where?”
“In third grade we went to Fort Davis for a field trip. We went to the McDonald Observatory.” It was getting dark now, and chilly. I leaned against her and after a second she wrapped her right arm around me. She was taller than I. She had always been, but it hadn’t been as noticeable lately. She seemed pushed down.
“Oh?” she said, her voice a little softer, but preoccupied, like she was still thinking about the date. I tried to remember, too, for her, but couldn’t. It was sometime in May, I thought, since it wasn’t hot yet, just seventies and eighties without wind. May. And I always knew when my birthday was, because it was with the first frost. Late November or early December. It was spring when the heifers gave birth. And autumn when the grass and tomatoes died and the cars—summer traffic—thinned out on the highway.
“It was great,” I said after a long pause.
She looked down at me for the first time. “I’ve never been there,” she said. “What’s it like?”
The moon was rising along with the stars, laid out before us. Since we were far from any town or other trailer homes or even rich-people houses, they were vivid and bright, coating the vibrant darkness until there was barely any sky left. We could see the arm of the Milky Way, the patterns of the Bears and the Pleiades and Orion. There was even a small, brightly shining spot at the edge of the horizon that I thought was Venus, moving slowly through the lushly dark sky.
“It was like this,” I said, “but at the top of a mountain.”
She leaned her head on the top of mine until Dad called us in to dinner, his whisky-thick voice scraping against the peaceful night time silence.
The highway whished by behind us. I caught my sister looking back at them as I went up our splintery, crooked front steps, up into the warmth.
At dinner she asked Dad: “Do you know the date?” and he only shrugged. “I don’t have a calendar anymore,” she said. “Do you know what’s today?” Her face looked hungry and haunted, like someone in search of an unattainable thing. And he and I only shrugged.
We ate dinner quickly and I washed the dishes, rubbing each one with a limp rag before pushing them into overcrowded, damp cupboards as Dad smoked on the steps outside. My sister came out of the bathroom, her thin hair dripping on her back, hugging her bony arms, and watched until I finished with the dishes.
“Your turn,” she said when I put away the last plate and turned to her.
“I’m not gonna take one tonight,” I said.
She looked at me with emotionless eyes. “Okay.”
She turned and went silently down the hall.
I called after her and she came back.
“Why… why’d you…” I wanted to ask why she’d come out just to tell me it was my turn. Why didn’t she just go into her bedroom per usual? But it was such a minute thing I was at a loss for words.
“Don’t call me back for nothing,” she said, her face contracting into anger. “And look, that rag is dripping all over the floor. You’re gonna have to get a dry one and clean it up. Go. Do it now.”
“Sorry—” I said, but she had already turned away, no longer listening.
I went to our room, my head down, and dressed in pajamas while she sat on her bed with her back to me, staring at the paint-chipped wall. She had on a tank top, which exposed her narrow bones and the muscles in her arms. She didn’t move an inch while I stripped and dressed and brushed my hair. When I finally sat down on my bed, she turned her face to me.
Her eyes were full of quivering tears. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, and then said my name. “I’m sorry for lashing out. I’m… I’m sorry.”
I looked at her, taken aback. “It’s okay,” I told her. I stood and went over to her bed. She buried her head in my arms and cried for the first time since I could remember.
It was past midnight when I awoke, sweating.
Her bed was empty again.
I crept down the creaky linoleum hallway, head bent as if it would help me stay in the shadows, and let the screen door swing out. She was there on the hot hard-packed ground, her skin pale in the moonlight, sitting on the prickly ridge as she did night after night, chin on her kneecaps. Watching the rushing highway as Dad, and the rest of the world, slept behind her.
Her eyes glimmered with starlit tears. I sat down next to her.
My sister said my name softly and asked if I knew the date. I told her it was a Monday. That seemed to give her peace.