My morning was ruined the minute I woke up three hours behind schedule due to the fact that my phone had died again, despite the fact that I had charged it just before bed.
As I groggily wriggled out of my sheets, silently cursing at the sun for having the nerve to rise, I heard her. The soft, fluttery notes of her favorite piano music drifted from her room, as if taunting me for not arising as early as she did. Grumbling, I forced myself out of my beloved bed, only to promptly stub my toe on a ridiculously hard object. I glanced down at it, grasping my foot in agony. It was my old soccer trophy, its bold “Second Place” engraving reminding me once again that I’m only second best, not good enough for the gold that was currently sitting on her shelf. Even after all these years, it still wasn’t done tormenting me. Hopping on one foot, I made my way towards the kitchen.
One look at the kitchen closet told me that I was going to pay for not going shopping three hours ago. The only breakfast item left was the plain oatmeal that expired two weeks ago. She must have devoured the Vanilla Flakes cereal that I knew had been there yesterday, even though she knew that vanilla was my favorite. Guess I’ll just eat saltine crackers for breakfast, then. As I halfheartedly headed towards the dining table with my sorry meal, something caught my eye. Someone had placed a neat white box on the flimsy table near the front door, meaning that whoever it was had been in a hurry, since no one trusted that table otherwise. Its lid was slightly open. I’ll put it somewhere safer after I eat, I thought. It was probably for her, anyways.
That’s when I heard it. The gentle tap, tap, taps of her heels signifying her descend down the stairs. I grabbed my crackers and dashed towards the bathroom. I didn’t want to deal with her yet. I shoved crackers into my mouth, keeping one hand on the door so that she couldn’t get in. I was halfway through the sleeve when I heard a sudden crash coming from the dining room.
I sprinted towards the sound, then halted when I saw what she had done. She was sprawled on the floor, her pretty face scrunched up in pain, her hands grasping the back of her head. Chocolate frosting stained the front of her crisp new dress, the freshly ironed skirt littered with brown crumbs. She slowly reached for the mushed lump near her. As soon as she saw me, she froze.
Gisella,” I gasped. “What have you done?” Gisella sat up, still rubbing her head. “I- I was just- just trying to surprise you.” She gestured at the cake stand on the dining table, at the open white box. I stepped over her, finding a little card next to the box. It read, “Congratulations on the win, Arabella! Here’s to our Chess Champion!” I recognized the swirly script at once. I turned to Gisella, staring at her chocolate-coated clothes, at the card, at the squashed lump next to her…
“You didn’t,” I breathe. “I’m sorry,” Gisella whispered. “I was just trying to help, but I slipped.” “Why did you have to involve yourself in the first place? Do you always have to throw yourself onto everything?” I snapped. “If you haven’t noticed, it’s not always my fault,” she said quietly. “Sometimes I get hurt too.” “Then why don’t you just back off?” I choke out, my eyes welling now. “Why does everything have to be about you all the time?” I gesture to the brown stains on her dress. “Even my rewards have to be tailored for you.” Chocolate made me throw up. It was always Gisella who favored it, and Mom knew that. “I try my best, Bella, but I always make things worse.” She’s combing out the frosting in her oil black curls now, her long fingers working through the chunks.
The motion brings me back to when Gisella was five, when she started to compete in beauty pageants. She was stunning even as a child, her doe eyes framed by thick lashes, her plump cheeks glowing like sunlit peaches. Mom used to tie her little ringlets with silk ribbons and fragrant flowers, picking through the hair until it was just right. I would watch in awe as my sister transformed in front of my eyes, as rosy as a cherry blossom in full bloom. I dreamed of the day when I, too, would be given the chance to flourish. But when I gathered up the nerve to ask, my mother would always have the same response. “Arabella, don’t be silly,” she’d laugh. “You have to be pretty to be in a pageant.” She’d then turn back to my sister, fawning over her beauty instead of mine.
The trouble began as soon as Gisella was born, when my name was stolen from me and given to her instead. Before her, I had been “Ellie,” the girl whose smile alone was enough to make her mother satisfied. Ellie had been loved. Ellie had been enough. After Gisella, I became “Arabella,” the girl whose best efforts would always be bested. Arabella was the girl who could blaze as bright as the sun, but would always be shadowed. Arabella was never enough.
Gisella would try to smooth things over. Whenever she won soccer matches or spelling bees, she’d try to hand me the trophy so that in the family photos, it would look like I was the champion. On her birthday, she would attempt to let me open her gifts, which were always better than mine. When the kids at school would practically worship her in awe, she would go on and on about how accomplished I was, which only made it more obvious that she was better than me. I guess it bothered her that no matter how many trophies she won, or how many certificates she earned, my love was something she’d never gain.
I was better than Gisella at exactly two things: writing and chess. Writing was the one outlet in which I could sculpt my emotions and my passions into words. I could create doorways into other realms, realms in which the girls were pretty enough, smart enough, powerful enough, loved enough, or just simply “enough.” I could paint worlds where I could finally know what it was like to have a father who didn’t run away or a mother who loved both her daughters. My writing was the only thing that got my teachers to notice me, to look at me and finally remember my name.
As for my chess prowess? It was so outstanding, I won the regional championships, and better yet, my mother’s admiration. It was good enough for her to finally buy me a cake to surprise me, which had never happened, even though she hadn’t even bothered to get the flavor right. But, like always, Gisella had to get her overachieving hands in my happiness.
I snap back to the present, where she is now gingerly stroking the back of her head, simultaneously picking off chocolate crumbs. She catches me staring at her. “Arabella,” she says gently. “I’m sorry I made a mess of things.” She waves her hand over the ruined cake, over her dress fit for a beauty queen, over her slightly-too-big shoes that our mother insisted she wear to “bring out those gorgeous legs,” even though Gisella is only fifteen.
I study Gisella's remorseful expression. I knew Gisella’s life as the “success sibling” wasn’t all gold and glory. She had a lot on her plate, and it tended to choke her. Worst of all were her beauty competitions. Gisella’s beauty often blew everyone else out of the water, which Mom boasted about to all of the soccer moms. However, maintaining that beauty was near impossible to accomplish. Her hair would frizz if it wasn’t curled and combed to perfection, which took at least an hour. Her injuries on the playing field coupled with the stress of a class president led to clogged pores, broken nails, and baggy eyes. My mother would atone for this by forcing Gisella to skip soccer games and study sessions to attend beauty treatments and trips to the mall. All that dolling up brought a lot of unwanted attention from people of all ages. Mom would often say that she would actually sell Gisella to a rich somebody if her performance in the beauty industry wasn’t lucrative enough. I could never tell if she was joking or not. But whenever I walked past Gisella’s room at night and heard quiet sobbing behind the door, I pretended that it was just the wind.
"It's okay, Ellie." I say, gently taking her hands. "It's not your fault. I'll be okay."
I carefully stripped off those troublesome shoes and helped my little sister to her feet.
“We’ll be okay.”