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I miss you, Lena. I miss your smile. I miss the way you used to ramble on and on at the dinner table about seemingly unimportant things. It wasn’t until you were gone that I realized how important they were. Please hear me now, even though no one was there to hear you. I need someone to listen.
I carefully place the note on my sister’s polished tombstone. The stone seems too shiny for her; she was always a little more rough around the edges. For all 8 years of her life, she never once owned anything pink. She played ‘King of the Hill’ with the boys in the neighborhood, and rarely ever wanted to dress up. My mother basically had to force her into the fluffy dress for our aunt’s wedding. I used to think her fits were annoying, but things have changed since then. I have changed. And not many guys my age are able to admit this, but I love my sister. I’ve loved her since the day she came home…..
“We have some news,” Mom said.
Great. This was always the start of something I did NOT want to happen. Some big, fantastic event that was supposed to make our lives better, or more ‘fulfilling’ or something. That’s what happens when you have parents who are addicted to charity work. Dad began his speech, also usual.
“After you were born, you mother and I wanted to have another child, but we weren’t……able to. So, while we were on our mission trip in Chile, we were doing some repairs on this orphanage, and we met this beautiful 3-year-old girl named Lena, and we fell in love with her immediately. Over the last few months, we’ve been finalizing paperwork, and it has just been approved for us to adopt her. She will be arriving in about a month. She doesn‘t speak much English, so we will have to help her out a lot. We are all going to learn some Spanish so that we can communicate with her more easily. But I think this will be an enriching experience for all of us.”
There was that word. Enriching. I couldn’t believe it. I was so accustomed to being an only child. Everything was solely mine; the peanut butter in the pantry, the video game system in the basement, everything. I never had to share any of it. I loved the attention my parents gave me. I mean, I could barely handle when we got a new cat and the cat got more attention than me. This was going to be a disaster. My new sister would show up, and they’d care so much about her that they totally forget about me. It would happen. I’d seen it on TV.
I saw her coming down the stairs in the airport. I knew her face immediately from the pictures my parents had shown me. She and the lady escorting her slowly grew larger, and I stood there, awkwardly, waiting for the torture to ensue. They finally arrived at the spot where we were standing, and Lena looked up at us with wide and curious eyes. I could tell that she was afraid. She really was beautiful, for a tiny kid. She had warm brown eyes, and her dark hair perfectly that complimented her tanned skin.
My parents and the lady talked for a long time, making sure that everything was set for Lena to come home. All I had my mind on was how annoying this was going to be. I had already had to relinquish my first-floor room for her, what else would I have to give up? I trudged behind them, dragging my feet and mourning the loss of my self-centered household. It was then that the Lena, gripping my mother’s hand tightly, turned around, and looked at me. In her child-like Spanish that I could sort of understand, she asked my mother, ‘Hermano?’ Hermano. In Spanish, ‘brother’.
If I could go back and tell my ten-year-old self to just grow up and deal with it, I would. At that point, I didn’t understand how much my sister would mean to me; how much she would help me in the coming years. I began to walk out of the cemetery and towards the high school I used to attend. Being back in this town for Lena’s birthday brought back many memories, good and bad. But walking past the school brought me nothing but dismal thoughts. You may think me a bit crazy for thinking this, but I believe that it was Lena who helped me through my first break-up…
“Colin! Come down here and celebrate with us!” Heck no. There was no way I could be happy and eat cake and celebrate my sister’s birthday. Not today. Today was the day I had caught my first girlfriend, Kelly, cheating on me. With my best friend. And as I sat there in my room, with the huge knife sticking out of my back, the last thing I wanted to was party. I wanted to sulk.
I heard footsteps coming the stairs. They were too quiet to be my mom’s so I figured it was Lena. Great. Like I needed the kid bugging me right now. Knock knock knock. “Colin, don’t you want some cake!?” I hear from outside my door. Sometimes I miss the days when she couldn’t speak much English so I couldn’t even understand her.
“Go away, Lena!”
“But I know you want some cake!”
“No, I don’t want cake. Go away!”
“Why don’t you want any cake?!” Her voice was getting louder now, and I could tell she was angry. My voice grew too. All the anger that had been simmering in my head that day came boiling up into my throat. I threw my cell phone onto my bed, stomped to the other side of the room, and yanked open the door.
“Because I just don’t! I’ve such a rotten day, and I don’t you need you sitting there bugging about dumb stuff like cake! You’re such a child, Lena! You don’t understand anything! You’re so…so…….STUPID!”
I felt guilty immediately. I’d never called her stupid, but I know that to her, ‘stupid’ was like a swear word. She never said it, and she hated when it was said to her. I saw the first few tears begin to well up in her eyes. I knew she was trying to be strong, as usual, but she would break down soon enough.
“Lena……I’m so sorry…..”
She stood there, silent. She looked about as sorrowful as someone who had just lost everything they ever loved. Awesome. She was getting to me again. And here it comes…
“Lena, come sit with me.”
I reached out to take her hand, and she reluctantly gave it to me. I lead her into my room, picked her up swiftly and threw her onto the bed. She laughed at first, then stopped abruptly. She was trying to stay angry, but she couldn’t. Typical Lena. I sat next to her, and scooped her, in all of her purple-dressed glory, into my lap.
“I’m sorry I called you stupid, Lena.”
“It’s okay,” she said.
“No, it’s not okay,” I replied. “I had a really bad day, and I took it all out on you.”
“Why did you have a bad day?”
“Do you remember how Kelsey used to come over and we would watch movies together?”
“Yeah. You never let me watch them.”
“Well, I saw Kelsey watching movies with a boy that wasn’t me and I told her that we couldn’t be friends anymore.”
Lena was silent. I knew she was trying to think of something to say.
“……..Are you sad?”
“Yeah. I am. A little bit.”
I saw the flames shoot up in her eyes. She was angry too. I knew she didn’t fully understand the situation, but it made her angry simply that I was mad.
“Then I think you should call HER stupid too,” she said, her brow wrinkled and her eyes so passionate that I’m surprised smoke didn’t come out of her mouth.
“You know what Lena? I think I will,” I said with a smile. It was amazing how an 8-year-old girl saying something so witty could put a smile on my face. I mean, I was usually a pretty melancholy guy. It was only around Kelsey that I ever really smiled. But Lena always had that ability to make my face light up with whatever she said. But then, a thought came into my head. No. Not even thought. Instinct.
“And one day, when you grow up, and you find a boy that you want to watch movies with, you better tell him that you have an older brother and that if he hurts you, I’m going to fart on his head.”
She giggled. “Okay.”
This was the last conversation I had with my sister. I thank God every day that at least it was something meaningful, and not “Will you pass the peas?” “Sure.” I reach the front door of the house, the one we lived in for so long. I still remember her room, exactly how it was laid, the precise shade of “froggy green” she had insisted on painting her walls. I reach my hand out to grip the door handle, my mind flashing back to the only memorable time I had ever opened this door…
At 5:30 I was finally home from soccer practice. I took a few steps into the warm house. It was quiet. The TV was not on, like it usually was, and there was no beginning dinner preparations on the counter. Something was wrong. I heard my father on the phone in the next room. “No, sir, she didn’t come home. She is always home by 3:00, every day. No, we didn’t have any special arrangements for her to be anywhere else.”
I took a few cautious steps into living room to see what exactly was going on. My mother’s head was held in her hands, and she was crying. My father, pacing, was talking anxiously on the phone (to the police, I assumed). Then I noticed something. Something missing. The ‘she’ was Lena.
The stark white walls of the room began to close in. My sister…….My sister was missing……
The next few months were torture. Multiple missing person’s reports, hanging posters, and seeing Lena’s face on the 6 o’clock news. The search went on, and I remember sitting in the police station, being questioned for hours on end. They knew we couldn’t help them. They were just delaying the bad news that she wasn’t going to be found, or, if she was, she wouldn’t be alive.
And then it happened. They found her body, sunk to the bottom of a local pond. They explained to my parents how she had died, that someone, most likely a large man, had tied her up, and then choked her until she stopped breathing. But that didn’t matter. She was gone, and she wasn’t coming back. They held a candlelight vigil for her; I didn’t go. People placed teddy bears and flowers in front of her grave; I paid no attention to them. They didn’t know her. They had never heard her talk continuously about the worms she found digging around in the backyard. They had never hugged her, or held her when she cried. And no one heard her scream as she was being dragged to her death.
After the funeral, things calmed down. The posters were torn off the lampposts, the stories on the news disappeared. Everyone forgot. But every year, my family gathers in front of our old house, the one that we didn’t sell because it was too painful, and we light one candle on the front steps. Then we stand in silence, and remember Lena.