Content warning: Eating disorder
My friends used to believe I was an only child. Whenever I'd invite one over for the first time and we passed by the framed photos on the way to my bedroom—of me and my mother smiling on the sandy beaches of Maui, or the two of us standing beside the Grand Canyon, arms locked in a sweaty embrace—they always took the pictures at face value, and not once did I bother to correct them. As far as they knew, Holly Johnson didn't exist.
Though, had she appeared in any of our family photos, perhaps they would have mistaken my sister for a friend, another brunette girl whom I brought along to stave off the boredom of an alpine vacation alone with my mom. Or maybe even a tourist, someone we met while whale-watching on a cruise ship or a girl we bonded with over breakfast bagels and muffins at the Four Seasons, a girl who just happened to have my emerald stare and arched eyebrows.
Certainly they wouldn't have suspected my sister, two years older and 140 pounds heavier, to have anything to do with me.
The week after graduating high school, Holly's longtime boyfriend, Phil, landed her a waitress job at Great Burger, a restaurant you couldn't leave without the smell of grease following you for the next five miles. Five nights a week she paraded around that joint, pigtailed and sporting a too-tight plaid shirt and speaking in an affected southern accent, feeding phrases like "How y'all doin'?" and "Come back now, y'hear" to her customers like appetizers.
She returned home around nine each night, filling the house with the aroma of French fries and bacon grease. Even from the sanctity of my room the smell was unmistakable. When the stench came, I always paused whichever old Disney song I had playing on YouTube and listened to my family's muffled voices downstairs. Invariably Mom would ask if Holly was hungry, and invariably she'd say, "No, I'm okay, I brought home a salad from the restaurant," then rustle the paper bag in her hand.
Later, in the room above hers, I always smelled other things whenever Holly gently uncrumpled her paper sack: the musk of garlic powder on ground beef, the sugar-sweet scent of apple pie. Never salad.
In my dresser drawer, buried beneath a heap of clothes and a packet of birth control pills, I kept a photo of Holly that I still own to this day. As far as I knew, it was the only picture we owned where she appeared, the only one she hadn't needlessly thrown away. In the photo she is forever ten years old, smiling despite having both buck and missing teeth. She is standing in front of a summer camp cabin with her Girl Scout troop, dressed in a beret and a sash speckled with merit badges. It is sunny, the sky impossibly blue and never-ending.
In the photo she is thin. You couldn't tell her apart from any of the other girls, a brown-haired wave in an ocean of calm. She is thin and she is smiling, my sister.
In the photo her eyes are open wide, but there is so much she couldn't have seen back then: the way our father, sleep-deprived, would take a wrong turn a few months later and hit a semi-truck head-on; the way our mother would walk through the house in a daze afterwards, forgetting to restock the pantry and buying us greasy fast food instead; the war Holly's metabolism would wage against her body; the boy in her seventh grade class, the one she'd had a crush on for years, the one who looked at her on the first day of the school year and called her a "fat ass."
The day that last one happened, she locked herself in her room and wouldn't open the door for Mom. It was only later, after dinner, when I knocked that she ushered me in and explained what happened.
And I laughed. Hearing those two words together like that, "fat ass," I laughed in my sister's face. I couldn't stop, couldn't help myself, couldn't explain that I wasn't laughing at her but at the word "ass," that my ten-year-old brain still thought swear words were funny by nature.
It was a lot less funny when she started crying and asked me to leave.
That was what I always thought of whenever I heard Holly unpacking her Great Burger dinner and the lonely smell of onions came wafting up through the floorboards: how she needed me that day, how she was looking for a friend with those big eyes of hers, how there was so much she couldn't see.
The day Holly lost her job was different.
I paused "Part of Your World" at exactly 9 p.m. and waited to hear the telltale jingle of keys, the turning of the lock, Mom's speedy muting of the TV. But by 9:20, the only sound in the house was the distant mumbles of the Golden Girls.
It was 11:15 when I finally heard the jangle of the front doorknob. Mom was snoring in her room. Downstairs, Holly slammed her keys down and trudged to her room. There was no paper bag slapping against her thigh, only the sound of her footfalls. I tried to imagine her down there, swaying under the windowed glow of moonlight. Why was she home so late?
I tried not to think about it, tried to let it go, until I heard a sound like someone grunting, coming from the room under mine. Then it happened again and again. Placing my pillow over my head, I tried to ignore it, but after a few minutes I couldn't take it. I slid out of bed, popped my feet into a pair of slippers, and tiptoed downstairs.
Leaning against Holly's door, I tried to discern what the noise was. It came again as soon as I put my ear to the door, and I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. My throat dried.
When I opened the door, I saw her there in her bathroom, hunched over with her mouth positioned over the toilet. The room smelled acrid, bitter. On command, my sister raised her dirty index finger and ran it down the back of her throat, and the noise came again, like a bucket of water being poured in an ocean.
When I gathered the courage to rap on her door, she gave me a passing glance, eyes half-lidded, like she was trying to place me but she couldn't see. I noticed a strange fruity scent underneath the bitter stench, the work of alcohol. Holly's face was flushed. I didn't know what to say, so I waited and eventually she spoke first: "Phil left me. Take a guess why."
And the retching sound started again.
I handled the situation poorly; that much I can say with certainty now. Because that night instead of being there for my sister, instead of being a friend, I ran straight to Mom's room. I felt like I was six instead of sixteen, barging in and turning on all the lights and rousing my mother from her sleep. I told her everything, crying like Holly had so long ago on the first day of seventh grade.
What I hadn't expected was to come home from the mall the next day and find my sister's room vacant, most of her things gone.
"Your sister needs time," Mom explained when I finally asked her. She looked across the table over her Chinese takeout.
"Can we see her?" I asked, poking at my chow mein.
Mom pointed her chopsticks at me and said, "She'll get better in that treatment center. We have to let her get better. It's important."
Eventually I stopped asking. Whenever I broached the subject of Holly, Mom would stop and look out the nearest window as though we were discussing someone from the past, a close friend from whom she'd drifted apart long ago.
But the thing is—the thing I never did tell my mother is—I did go once, to visit my sister in the treatment center, months after Holly was taken there.
The place was sterile, immaculate. Air-conditioning pumped through the building, fending off my body heat. The woman at the front desk who checked me in and asked me to verify my information and to show my ID wore the biggest, whitest smile I'd ever seen. She was thin, beautiful. She told me where I could find my sister.
When I got to Holly's room, I rapped on the door, this time like I meant it. The breath left my body when she turned to greet me. I'm positive I gasped, quick and loud.
Holly's face was much slimmer, angular, her arms half the size as they were when she'd worked at Great Burger. I hadn't seen her waist so slender since we were in grade school. Her eyes looked the same but there was something else there, something deeper.
"How do I look?" she asked, and her voice sent chills through my body. It was raspy, tired. It didn't fit the image.
"You," I started, but the word came out as a whisper. "You look great." And it wasn't a lie, but it wasn't my sister either.
Halfway through getting reconnected, Holly looked over my shoulder. I followed her eyes but saw nothing, no one. That's when she leaned in and told me her secret.
"I've got a friend here who helped me get like this," she said, meeting my emerald eyes with her own. Quickly, she reached into her pocket and flashed something small and white—a pill. "Her mom packs them inside the Bibles she sends."
I blinked, taken aback, then patted my clothes ostentatiously to show her I had no such goodies to give.
"It's cool," Holly said, and shrugged. "I didn't expect you to."
Outside the window behind Holly, the clouds rolled across the sun, casting shadows over the room. She looked different, my sister, framed in that light. It felt like I was seeing her for the first time. Something uneasy churned in my stomach.
"I've gotta go," I told her. "I've stayed too long anyway. Mom said you'd probably get better on your own."
I turned to leave and was already halfway out the door when my sister stopped me.
"Wait, Shelby," she said. "I want you to take my picture."
And just like that, I stopped right there in the middle of the doorway, the threshold between both of our lives. One foot in her world, one foot leading back to mine.
She smiled her buck tooth smile and said it again: "I want you to take my picture. You don't have to show Mom or anything. Just save it for me. For later, okay?"
The phone in my pocket felt like an anchor, the weight of a conscience. But somehow I managed to retrieve it. "Okay."
Her smile widened and she propped one leg up against the other, threw her hand behind her head, and winked. My sister, little Miss Camera Shy.
I took her photo.
She laughed when I went to put my phone away. "Wait, hold on," she said, beckoning for the phone. "Lemme see. I bet I look picture perfect now."
The photo took up the entire screen on my phone. I stared at it and a stranger stared back. And I remembered the photo of Holly, still in my dresser back at home. I had a hard time reconciling the two. The girl on my screen looked like she could be anyone else: a tourist, a friend. I'm not sure I recognized her.
"Come on, Shel. I wanna see how the real me looks," she said, looking at me expectantly, her hand still out.
The phone shook in my grasp. "Me too," I said, and decided which direction to move my feet, which way to go.