A shadow of my sister sits on the windowsill. I see her by her edges- moon glow skimming down her curved spine, glancing across her arm and long, graceful fingers, then flowing down silken pyjama-clad knees held hugged to her chin. I hold my breath and hear the soft sigh of the wind, the occasional muted snuffle.
We haven’t shared this room in years. We have outgrown the pastel pink walls, tired-looking now and pocked with greasy marks from our rebellious teenage years of tacked up band posters. A row of long-forgotten stuffed toys looks down on us judgementally from atop looming twin wardrobes. The door of one bulges slightly ajar from the strain of containing the sum of my worldly possessions. The other stands empty.
My sister is living out of a suitcase squeezed between our beds. When she flew the nest, she had done so with conviction. She blossomed at university, came home after each semester itching to leave again. I had clung to her every word as she told tales of new friends and far off places, marvelled as she cooked us her new favourite foods. She started dressing differently, claimed not to like the bands we had shared any more. When she graduated, she followed her career further afield. Her visits became shorter and more infrequent. On those fleeting, sweeping, joyous occasions, she would burst in, all smiles amongst a hurricane of excitement, dressed in every colour under the sun- my unshakable, golden idol, making me feel three feet tall again.
I had made a go of the outside world and floundered, found myself falling back into a familiarity that was suddenly alien. I had not realised how small this room was until I came back, until I attempted to make it my own again despite the empty bed that stood as a monument to a more successful, more welcome daughter. Try as I might, the room could not be reclaimed from our childhood, from sweltering summer nights spent sleepless beneath the stars, from shouts across the landing as we whispered and giggled beneath the sheets, from long sulks spent back to back until we could bear it no longer, from boy bands blaring out of the CD player as we etched the lyrics into our very souls. Now we are both here, gathered by that terrible and unspeakable thing, and the room feels stranger still, the gulf between our beds impossibly wide.
I do not know the woman in the window. The shape of her is wrong. She is smaller somehow, as though her bright colours and beaming smile are an aura she exudes. I have not seen my sister cry since she was sixteen years old and sobbing over our lost cat. If I close my eyes, this will remain.
Are you awake?
I hear the echoes of that old familiar refrain. I allow myself a small smile as I recall the times I have woken blearily to a tap on the arm and a hiss of that question in the darkness, of the whispered secrets that followed, the dreams and nightmares, tears and laughter. The answer had never been allowed to be no- the instigator would continue to ask until it was true. I think about uttering those words now, but I cannot. I feel as though I am intruding on something private, something I should not be witnessing. I do not want to see the shadow in the window, this stranger, and yet I cannot look away.
The wardrobe creaks. My sister’s head snaps around at the sound. Our eyes meet and we stare at each other under the dim light of the stars as though we have been caught doing something we shouldn’t.
“Sorry,” she says, “Didn’t mean to wake you.”
“You didn’t,” I lie.
The silence returns. My sister stays frozen in place, as though moving would be an admission of guilt.
“You ok?” I ask.
She shrugs, then says awkwardly, “Want me to close the curtains?”
“It’s fine. I can’t sleep anyway.”
The clock ticks. I can see the damp trails on her face, but she refuses to wipe them away, refuses to acknowledge the tears.
“I’m scared,” she whispers to the dark, at last, her voice so small I barely hear it.
At first, I try to convince myself that I have merely misheard her. My sister is the certain one, so sure of who she is, the unstoppable rock under whose shadow I blunder along. My sister does not get scared. If she did… who would that make me?
The darkness does not react, merely swallows her words. The darkness doesn’t care. There are things that can be said in the dark that would sound ridiculous by day.
Don’t be silly, I should say, Everything is going to be fine.
But I find that I cannot lie in the darkness. What would be the point? The world was a scary place. Nothing was as it should be. It felt as though the world was being pulled out from beneath our feet. I did not know whether everything would be fine or not.
“Come here,” I say instead.
The bed protests as I wiggle over to one side and fling the duvet back.
“Here,” I repeat, tapping the edge of the bed.
She hesitates, but something in my voice seems to have control of her legs. She slips from the windowsill and tiptoes across the room. She clambers into bed beside me, both of us realising slightly too late that the logistics of sharing a single bed are not as simple as they were when we were seven years old. Her body feels cold pressed against mine. Eventually, she allows herself an unladylike sniff. Wordlessly, I reach out for the tissue box and pass it to her.
“It’s ok to be scared,” I tell her.
“No, it’s not,” she tries to say, but the darkness makes a mockery of her haughtiness, swallows it before she can finish her words.
“Are you scared?” she asks.
“I should have been here,” she says, the sobs rising once more.
“There’s nothing you could have done.”
“But-” she starts. The darkness takes whatever words would have followed.
“I know,” she says, sagging against me.
We say nothing else. We hold each other in the darkness- all that we are and were and might be- and cry silently together until sleep finds us.
Sunlight rouses me into wakefulness. I squirm at the glare of the light streaming through the open curtains and groan, half lifting myself to look around. I am alone in the bed once more. I wonder to myself how long my sister had stayed there, whether she had actually been there at all. Her bed beside me is already pristinely made.
“Morning,” she says, wandering past fresh-faced and fully dressed. She is larger than life once more, fully restored, the bleary-eyed shadow of the night seemingly nothing more than a bad dream.
I watch her as she does her hair in the mirror, seeing her by her edges, the side of herself she chooses to show in the sunlight.
“You ok?” I ask again.
“Of course,” she says, a slight hint of embarrassment in her smile, “You?”
“Yeah,” I say, flopping back into bed, “Of course.”
She regards me with a look of acknowledgement I haven’t seen before and nods. I nod back.
“We’ll be ok,” she says. The sun has not quite finished rising, and there is a slight hint of a question in her voice.
“Always,” I tell her.