It was a Saturday afternoon and I’d already polished off three drinks. Each one stronger than the last, with olives and grapefruit slices pinched carelessly on the sides, making my head trip in circles like a carousel. The people at my book launch party had begun to stroll laps around my living room. Their smiles were like flashing pinwheels and I tried to offer one back. Because I know if I didn’t, Allen would shapeshift into the responsible chaperone and the booze would be locked right up.
The balloons floated around aimlessly like ghosts with a recycled memory. A worship of fellow writers knocked on the door before entering, poking their fingers teasingly into the balloons’ faces and commenting graciously on the array of books. They were positioned delicately on the floral tablecloths by Cori, who was motioning to me from across the room. I wonder what the hell they wanted, my crazy found brother.
“Everyone,” Rebell interrupted, corking the chatter in the room. “Thank you so much for coming to celebrate my sister-from-another-mister, Paris.” She chuckled, “Hopefully we can get you drunk enough to purchase a copy of her extraordinary memoir before she gives you her speech in an hour. Only kidding, of course.” Laughter circulated blindly throughout the room like air conditioning. “Now, let us not be a glaring of cats on this wonderful fiesta!” Rebell clapped and cued Allen to start the bluegrass music.
The music did not, in any way, match the mood. It had long stretches of time where banjos discoed and gambled with violins. I’d asked for classical but Rebell had obviously selected a theme based on her own taste.
I crushed the vanilla base of a cupcake in between my thumb and index finger. The icing came off in one lick and I could taste the artificial sting. Cori couldn’t bake themself so they went the easy way. Perhaps that’s why I loved them—all of them.
Rebell sauntered towards me and clamped her hands protectively on my shoulders. Her perfume was overwhelming and her lips were making prints on a Solo cup. She sipped and exhaled before speaking. “So what’s your book about again? If anyone asks.”
I half-smiled and leaned in to plant a kiss on her cheek. She smelled like Diet Coke. “You’re the best found sister I could ever have. Thanks for making this happen.” My face went back into my drink because I was afraid it was turning red like a clown.
Her mouth dipped like a rainbow for just a second, quick enough that no normal person could catch it. But I did.
“We love you, Paris.” she whispered before squeezing my hand and returning to mingle. Rebell didn’t give me enough time to say it back.
I looked around my party with bookmarks dripping onto the floor. Guests were laughing and the chandeliers were quaking on their toes. Allen was assuring a group of people that I’d be signing copies after my speech while slipping books into their purses. My damn speech. I wasn’t much of a talker, more of a listener. And that’s what a writer needed to be. But when Rebell told me I needed to make a speech I almost hurled in the toilet.
I thought about Rebell. She knew my real family and her frowns were intentional. She might’ve thought my life was this romantic tale where my delusional cousin ended up in jail and I’d never have to see her again.
I poured myself another drink. This time it was more Diet Coke and only a little bourbon. After all, I was about to bust out of my own party. I didn’t want to be a drunk driver.
Crossing the room in three inch heels was a task. I wobbled, clinging to the shoulders of unsuspecting people and the corners of tables. They smiled and I excused myself to the bathroom. From the bathroom I snuck into my bedroom for a change of shoes. From there it was out the door.
The sun was cloaked in thin clouds and stamped butter crescents into the windshield of my Audi. When I plugged the keyes into the ignition, the broken words of a journalist began to stutter, spilling depressing news into my face. Like I wasn’t depressed enough.
It was slightly foggy but enough so that I could still find my way. The route to the San Pedro Prison was a cord in the back of my mind. An unfortunate part of me. The trees were still bare along the freeway and I drove with my eyes to the road and my hands at ten and two. Just like Allen had taught me and Ellis, a long time ago.
Ellis. The iron bars pressed lines into her forehead. I always wondered if she regretted what she did, but perhaps not. Perhaps she was having another one of her breakdowns where she tugged whole chunks of hair from her scalp and screamed like the ground was veins of lava. It was unfair she was rotting in a cell with her mind leaking sanity. She needed help.
Allen taught us how to drive and it did her good. She escaped and ended up a jailbird with her wings chained together.
I remembered my last visit on a rainy day. A few months ago when I was still drafting my memoir. We were seated at a round table with two chairs, her tangerine jumpsuit glowing under the dim lights. Her hands were spread out on the table, instructed by a nearby officer. She smiled the red way a mime would smile, trapped behind nothing but themself.
“A sentence of judges,” she sang hushed, “a lying of pardoners.”
Our visits rarely consisted of conversations, only fragments of phrases that she’s made rhyme during her lonely nights. Truth be told, I didn’t know why I bothered to show up at all. It could’ve been to see her oval face or the fact that she was my only living relative left. The memory was starting to clear as the carnival in my mind halted to a stop.
“My breath will catch one day, and the drums in my chest will come to a silent conclusion. Then, as I’m buried in the ground, will anyone remember the way I used to laugh? Or the way I cut my own hair?” Her eyes had been closed. The rain had been like white noise in the background. She’d been falling asleep.
I had laid my hand on hers. “I’m writing a book about you,” I’d told her. “Cori and Rebell helped me edit and Allen’s going to get it published somehow.” Ellis’ eyes had flicked open at the names. “I promise, you will not be forgotten.” I knew that she recalled the names of our former found family. She’d recollected them, she’d loved them.
Checking the gas dial, I saw the little yellow picture of a pump. I needed gas but I was almost there. I hadn’t talked to Ellis in a while and I needed to see her. The roads were winding and the signs for turns were hidden behind groves of trees.
Finally, I was stopped at a toll booth where an officer dressed in blue checked my ID. He let me in and stroked his mustache. My phone buzzed like someone helpless having a seizure. It was Allen. Then it clicked when Rebell texted, Where are you? I replied, I had something important to do. She didn’t say another word.
Once I parked, I was escorted into the visiting room by a woman with a short ponytail. I kept my posture to convince the officers I wasn’t off my rocker from the drinks. They set me at the fourth table and told me to wait.
After ten minutes they returned with no Ellis. “She’s not here anymore,” they barked, “but she didn’t run away.”
Their looks could melt wax candles molded into witchy broomsticks, the way they frowned and held their own hands. So sympathetic, although they really didn’t care. Ellis. My jailbird. Gone. It had been a long time since she’d surrendered to the monsters which liked the walls of her sanity and passed on. I guessed I’d forgotten, like she was so desperately afraid of.
And now I was going to miss my damn speech.