It's the height of summer when I find out that she's back in town. A sticky heat has settled over the neighborhood, forcing us outdoors to the burning sidewalks and cheap-looking cafe awnings. I hear the news from an old friend, someone who we both used to talk to and I have fallen out of touch with. Another person would be offended if they weren't told first, but my sister and I aren't like that. It's become difficult to offend one another, even if we try.
The call comes three days later. I'm happy to hear Stella's familiar voice, but I have learned not to let on when you truly miss someone. So has she. Her words are simple and polite, but far from affectionate. It's what I should have expected, and yet sometimes I can't help hoping for more. This time, I receive an invite to coffee the next day. She doesn't know, or maybe doesn't remember, that I don't drink coffee - it keeps me up late - which is one of the many things she doesn't know about me. Would she be surprised how much I still remember about her?
There were times as children, during restless nights filled with the sounds of raised voices travelling up to our second-floor bedroom, when Stella would softly tap my shoulder and I'd roll over to make room for her in my bunk. She crawled under the covers next to me, freckled face turned towards mine in the dark. Sometimes we talked in hushed voices. I would tell her about the things I learned at school, or what I might have seen through our strange neighbor's half-closed curtains, or the popular new song I heard on the radio that morning, which, in my opinion, wasn't nearly as catchy as people made it out to be. The subject didn't matter. My point was merely to draw Stella's attention away from what was happening with our parents downstairs until she slowly slipped off to sleep beside me.
And so my goal became to distract her. We played: Hide-And-Seek, Unicorns, Who Can Run Faster. In the evenings we would go down to the creek and try to catch fireflies. Occasionally I would entrap one between my nimble fingers, but I never kept it for long. It seemed too cruel to force it to stay until its blinking light went out.
We became ghosts around the house, sneaking throughout the rooms without being seen and mysteriously not being around when we were called. Mealtimes couldn't be avoided of course, and they passed in awkward small talk, our mother and father asking simple questions about our days, refraining from eye contact with each other, pretending that everything was right in our perfect little family. They were always pretending.
I, too, pretended. For Stella. I was the older sister, and I knew she looked up to me. It felt sweet, to be needed, but there was responsibility there as well.
She once inquired of me, while we laid on the bottom bunk together in near blackness, why she couldn't disappear. "I waded in the creek today," she said, "and there were some fishies swimming by me. But when I got close, they swam away. Poof. Gone. I can't move fast like they could, so how am I ever going to go anywhere?"
The exasperation in her voice was masked, but I could tell. I rolled over onto my side to see her eyes, still wide, tired though they looked. "You could disappear, if you wanted," I offered. At her skeptical glance, I sighed. "Close your eyes." Stella obeyed. "Now picture where you want to be, and think real hard." The flicker of a smile passed over her bow-shaped lips. "In your head, count to three. One, two..." By the time I was saying three, she was already lost in slumber. And soon, so was I.
Things fell apart quickly, or perhaps I was too young to notice the lead-up. Instead of one house, now we had two. Two different families, one for each parent. Everyone we knew seemed to take sides, and thinking about it so did the two of us, Stella having been closer to our mother and I to our father. We were divided, but I wasn't going to let it divide the two of us. We were always together, her and I, and I didn't want that to change - not yet.
She still came down to my bed some nights, but it wasn't the same. The whole house was enveloped in what was, to me, a curse of silence, as deafening as a rocket launch while being absolutely nothing at all. Since there was no conflict for me to drown out with my words, there wasn't a point for them, and just like that Stella and I were part of the curse too. She stopped asking questions, and I stopped answering them. It didn't feel enough to me, but it should have been enough having her near, needing me though we were older.
At some point, that stopped too. Her bunk was hers and my bunk was mine, and there would be no soft tapping on the shoulder or late night conversations, only sleeping and dreaming like normal children. I discovered through restlessness and reappearing dark circles beneath my eyes that this was especially hard for me.
Much of my time in the hours when I was awake and alone was spent peering out of the window from my low vantage point and staring at the sky. It amazed me the way it changed and shifted, the same view but each time slightly differing. Once, I stayed up long enough to see the sunrise, with all its bending colors, and I watched as the sun rose up above the trees and past the top of the window, out of sight. It was something I knew Stella would have loved, and I felt bittersweet knowing she had missed it. I quietly swung my legs out of bed and climbed up the ladder to where she was sprawled out across the blankets.
"Stella," I whispered. She stirred, but didn't wake. I repeated her name louder, this time poking her leg, and her eyes opened slowly.
"What? It's too early, what do you want?" There was irritation in her voice that stopped me from replying. She rubbed her face, and I half-expected some of her freckles to come off on her hand. They didn't - her cheeks were as full of them as ever.
I paused, shaking my head slightly. "Oh...nothing. Don't worry about it." I put on a smile, pretending like always, and Stella accepted it, rolling back over on her stomach. I didn't tell her about the sunrise, or about my nights of insomnia. I promised I would sometime. Maybe I would have, but I was never good with promises.
I started taking pills to help me sleep, and by the time I started high school it wasn't a problem anymore. Neither was sharing a bunk with Stella; we had switched to separate rooms in both houses long before. I wondered sometimes if she missed the way things used to be, and maybe she did, but I knew she was much too stubborn to admit it. It was a fault we both shared, though I'd deny it.
Feeling shunned by everything else, I put all my energy into my schoolwork. I even joined an art club, encouraged by our mother, who thought I should "put myself out there." It wasn't a skill of mine, but I really did try, and I did improve. Stella didn't seem to have much time for me or anyone besides the couple friends she went out with, and some evenings she would come back late, past curfew, looking dazed and unraveled.
When I told her I thought she was falling in with the wrong crowd, I thought she would ignore me. I thought she would call me paranoid or over worried or storm off or slam a door in my face. I thought she would be all but what she was, which was...well, curious. Stella watched me with her wide eyes and finally asked me sincerely, "What should I do?"
I considered telling her what she should do. I considered this, and a million other things. But I ended up saying, after looking back up with a sigh, "Just...just be careful, okay?"
"Okay," she answered, biting her lip. "Okay." The one word, the affirmation that she had at least listened to me, was enough for me in that moment. It felt like we were children again. We were always together, Stella and I.
I didn't hesitate to drive miles from my art gallery to bail her out of jail because her boyfriend had been involved in shady business. She didn't apologize for how worried she had made me when she had called out of the blue letting me know that she was being kept in holding, because she didn't have to. I was happy to be needed, to be Stella's one phone call.
It didn't matter that she had given me no notice when she showed up at my front doorstep crying because her husband had left her. I consoled her anyway. "He doesn't deserve you," I said. "There are other people out there," I said. "Yes, you can stay here for the night," I said. I said a lot of things, and maybe some of them were lies, but lying doesn't seem as difficult as it used to. I knew that each second she was here with me was a second when she was safe and happy, and that guarantee was worth a white lie on my conscience.
Soon after that, Stella decided to move away. We hadn't talked in a year until the day I heard she was back in town.
I stand holding the phone in my hand, pondering whether to accept the invitation to coffee. The heat is bearing down on me now, thick and almost tangible. Glancing back at Stella's voicemail, I already know I'm going to say yes, because as much as I can try to convince myself that those nights together talking were only for Stella's benefit, I've realized that she wasn't the only person who needed somebody. Independent though I act, I needed her too.
Stella and I, we're ghosts, stubborn ones at that. We break things: plans, promises - ourselves, over and over again. We pretend, and lie. We're fireflies, free, never wanting to be trapped and let our light go out. Sometimes we stay, but sometimes all we want is to disappear. I taught Stella how, but she's become more adept at it than I could have imagined, for better or worse.
She might show up tomorrow, and we might sit together under a cheap-looking cafe awning to get out of the heat, her drinking an iced coffee while I have iced tea instead. We could talk, about how my kids are doing in school, or how she lives next to the strangest family, or how I've started listening to this new singer, who is, in my opinion, the best in the game. Perhaps she'll come back to the house. We might even stay up late enough to see a sunrise.
Or she might not show up, and I'm okay with that. Truthfully. I can picture her now: eyes squeezed shut, escape on her mind, the flicker of a smile on her bow-shaped lips.
As easy as 1, 2, 3, and she's gone.