There is this snapshot that I have, of my sister and I shortly before she graduated high school. We are eighteen and seventeen, respectively, and standing on the back porch of some guy’s house in front of a half-deceased maple tree. I don’t remember having the photo taken, but I remember that afternoon– how she’d wanted to go to this house party, how she’d dragged me along. I remember sitting in a foldable lawn chair the whole time, nursing a stale beer and staring at the dry crabgrass around my feet while she went gallivanting off with a tall, shaggy-haired boy. I think he was her boyfriend at the time. Anyways.
In the photo, she is captured in this burst of sunlight, illuminated by a glow that reflects off her face and captures the goldenness of her hair. Around her, the afternoon is broken into dancing pinpoints of sunlight, sprayed like confetti across her arms and the fence behind her. She’s laughing, face angled upwards to look at something just out of frame, and she’s wearing this tiny little flowered dress.
I am off to the side of the photograph, in dimmer light of the shadow cast by the tree. My face is half-obscured, but there’s just enough detail to catch an idea of my expression– painfully serious, unsmiling. I’m wearing one of my mother’s old sweaters, and my hair is darker, pulled into a low ponytail, the color of wet hay.
Whenever people ask me about her, this photo is always what comes to mind. Even though it is only a single moment, frozen in time, it seems to explain everything so perfectly. This is how I remember our adolescence together: Margot, performing for the camera, Margot, the golden-haired sister, laughing, Margot drenched in sunlight. And me, the other. Present, but just barely.
I get the call as I’m speeding along the highway– one hand on the armrest of my father’s old Volvo, the other tapping out the beat of the car radio against the polyurethane steering wheel. It’s mid-afternoon; I’m coming back from takeout Chinese, on my way to anthropology class. The day is unusually warm, sending a brilliant glare slicing across the passenger seat. I’ve cranked up the AC and opened the windows, letting a muggy breeze play around my ears.
It's here, in this moment as I am mulling over anthropology and the breeze and the car radio, that my phone buzzes against the cup holder I’ve stuck it in.
I fumble with it a second, turning it to speakerphone, fingernails clicking against the screen. “Hello?”
Her voice is muffled, so I don’t recognize it at first. A gasp, on the other line, audibly thrilled. “Freddie! It’s you! Thank goodness! I didn’t know…I thought I might get Mom or Dad, and I can’t…I just can’t…Listen, I need your help. I need you to come here right now, okay?”
I pause, barely comprehending the situation. “Margot?”
“Yes, of course? Who else?”
My mother? My great aunt Nancy? I decide not to bestow this logic upon my sister. “Margot, is this urgent? I have a class in ten minutes.”
She lowers her voice, to almost a whisper. “Something’s happened. I need you to come. It’zz verrra bad.”
I squint at the phone. “Are you ok?”
“No! That’s what I’m telling you! It’zzz…” she pauses, “terrible.”
I’m clutching the steering wheel, hard. “Are you drunk?”
“Hmmmm…” She drags out the syllable. “Let me think. No…no, I haven’t had anything to drink. I did have some of those…what were they called? Hmmmm…” She fades into silence.
I clench my teeth. “Margot, what’s happening over there? Are you ok?”
“Yes! Yes, I’m fine! I’m a little woozy–” here, she breaks off into a kind of hysterical laughter, then suddenly draws herself together with a little gasp-hiccup– “but I did something terrible. Terrraable…! I need you to come here, to help me fix it. It’zz verra serious.”
There is something bitter and raw festering away at the pit of my stomach. I’m merging into the exit lane, even as I’m asking, helplessly, “Can you call Mom? I really have to get to this class…”
“No!” The shriek on the other line is piercing, terrified. “No, no, I can’t. I need you, my little sister. Freddie, my wonderful little sister. Please, please…”
“Okay, okay. I’m coming right now.”
“Oh thank god.” I hear her exhale a whoosh of damp air, a puff of relief. “Promise me you won’t call Mom, ok?”
“Fine, ok, I won’t,” I reply, monotone. I’ve resigned myself, at this point.
“No, you have to promise. You have to crozzz your heart.”
“Ok, cross my heart I won’t call Mom.”
There is a muffled mumbling on the other line, sing-songy like she’s talking to herself. “…can’t know. Because if they know, they’ll realizze they’ve got a situation. The sizzuation is much worse than they thought.”
There is more muffled talking, indecipherable, and then, very loudly, “F***.” The line goes dead.
Eleven months earlier– a different phone call, from my mother. It’s nighttime– almost midnight. Her voice is faint, laced with static and raw fatigue.
“Yeah?” I’m sitting with my feet up on my desk, picking pistachio shells apart. I’m trying to finish a term paper. Gnawing on the taste of salt.
“She’s in the hospital again”.
I stop cold, fingers ashy with pistachio dust. “What? What happened?”
“Well– long story short, there was a problem with the medication. But, she’s all stabilized, and the doctors are going to switch her onto some new ones. I just thought you should know.”
“Wait– what kind of problem? Is she okay?”
“Yes, yes, she’s fine. No one’s hurt. But there was an incident…”
The next part is cut off by a long burst of static. I first hear a jumble of nonsense– something along the lines of “Mbhdh sowmes vbwnd…bwkdsl…” And then something about garden shears.
I pull into the driveway of my parent’s house, down the long, curving pathway and past my mother’s garden ornaments. As I turn off the engine, I pause to glance up at the huge, sprawling residence– four stories high, dotted with arches and balconies. It’s still beautiful, even now, even though all the windows are dark and the house sits eerily dormant. A thought strikes me, briefly, as I’m climbing out of the car: I haven’t been here since Christmas.
The house seems intact, though, which I take to be a good sign. I step inside the front door, looking around me. All the lights are off.
“Margot?” I call. There’s no reply. I advance into the living room, warily, half expecting to see some horrible wreckage– broken lamps, tables, chairs, pottery strewn across the floor, cabinets torn off their hinges…Margot, hanging from the rafters. But the house remains clean, untouched, and she is nowhere to be seen. “Margot?” I call again, listening to my voice echo back at me. I walk into the kitchen. It’s dark, silent, spotless. Nothing here, except– wait. A bottle of my father’s muscle relaxers, open, on the counter.
A scene flickers, briefly, through my mind– holiday season: my mother, standing on a neighbor’s porch, holding a brown paper shopping bag filled with wine bottles. I remember how the heads of the bottles popped up in a festive array of colored glass, like strange, fragile wind chimes. When the door opened, she smiled and presented them like a sacred offering, along with a sprig of holly.
So of course: the muscle relaxers. We don’t have anything else.
“Margot?” I call again. No reply, but this time I hear a muffled thump coming from above me. I run for the stairs. I pause, at the top, quickly scanning around me. It’s dark up here, too– all the lights are off, all the hallways empty. But there– to my left– a closed bathroom door, and a sliver of light sneaking out from underneath it. I move forward, carefully, trying not to let my shoes squeak against the hardwood. I have no reason to be sneaking around, but I can’t quite shake the impression that I am intruding on something. What, exactly, I don’t know. Maybe my sister. Maybe the house itself.
I knock on the bathroom door. “Margot?” I call softly, putting my ear against the cool wood. I’m met only with silence. I try to calm my breathing, using those meditation techniques they taught us in the clinic– in, two three…out, two three. I test the door knob, cautiously. It’s unlocked. I take a deep breath, swallow hard, and push. The door swings forward with a small, painful creak.
The room is drenched in a warm yellow glow, cast by the light of the overhead bulb. It’s silent, except for a steady drip of water from a single faucet, and there– in the bathtub in the center of the room, adrift on her own separate island, is Margot. As soon as she hears the door open, she turns to look at me, sending water droplets zinging into the stratosphere. Her face breaks into a lopsided grin. “Darling!” she exclaims, throwing her arms above her head.
I blink, trying to comprehend the scene in front of me.
She’s up to her shoulders in soap suds, legs dangling over the side of the porcelain tub. Her makeup is smeared– twin mascara trails tracing down her cheeks, only a faint imprint of what must have been gold eyeshadow on her lids. And she’s wearing– covered in soap suds and drenched to a wet pulp– her senior year prom dress, the red one from three years ago.
“Hey, Margot,” I reply, softly. “What’s this?”
“What’s what?” she asks, seemingly oblivious.
“What are you doing?”
She smirks at me, blue eyes crinkled mischievously. “I was verrry cold. Very cold and I thought…the bath, to be warm. And look– so many bubbles!” She throws her head back with a strange, hyena laugh I don’t recognize.
“Why are you wearing your prom dress?” I ask.
She swings her head back and forth, lolling, thinking. When she looks back at me, her eyes are enormous. “I wanted to be beeeuuwtiful.”
“Margot, why did you call me? What did you do, that was so terrible?”
“Oh!” She gasps, hands flying to her mouth. “Shhh, you can’t say. You can’t tell anyone.”
“I’m not telling anyone,” I reply, trying to keep my voice low and steady. “What is it?”
Her eyes are endless, bottomless pools. She puts her finger to her mouth, gently, then turns her head to the side so I can see the places where, carefully, she’s taken her long, golden hair and hacked it clean off.
I suck in a breath. I try to think of something to say– something comforting? Something cruel? I want to ask her why, for what reason, what she was thinking, but the words get caught in my throat. She turns to me, my half-bald sister, and her expression is horribly, painfully lost. She reaches a dripping hand forward, to clutch at my arm, imploring me through words thick like syrup, “Can you fix it?”
Two and a half years earlier: Margot, my mother, and I are standing in the fitting room at the downtown tailor’s. The shop is small, but lavishly decorated with floor-length curtains and an overhead chandelier. Margot is standing in the center of the room, decked out in a shimmering, floor length dress the color of burnt roses. She surrounded by mirrors, reflected onto the walls over and over again – an endless repetition of sisters. She keeps turning over her shoulder, craning her neck to catch a glimpse of herself from odd angles, and then twirling around just enough to send the dress spinning in a gossamer fray of cloth.
I am lounging on a bench along the back wall, head resting in the little crook made by the drywall corner, listening to faint elevator music and trying not to fall asleep. I watch a spider advancing along the beige carpeting, and think, mildly, of donuts.
My mother is across the room conversing with the tailor, phrases from their conversation drifting my way. “Just the hem then…it’ll be perfect…prom season?…such a beautiful dress…” Suddenly– a particular snippet of conversation catches my attention– my mother’s voice– “…brought this one for the younger one, can she try it on, while we’re here?”
I whip my head around. My mother is holding a hanger with a plastic dress bag on it, which she seems to have materialized out of nowhere. I send her a seething, smoldering glance. “There is no way you are getting me to put that on.”
My mother sighs.“Winifred, it’s a beautiful dress. Your sister looked lovely in it last year.”
“I’m not going to prom.”
“There’s the anniversary party coming up.”
“I’m not wearing it.”
My mother holds my gaze, steely eyed. “You have to wear something. Just try it on.”
“It’ll just look awful and be a horrible waste of time. Why don’t I just burn it, and go stark naked?”
At this point, Margot turns around on her majestic pedestal to fix me with a long, eternally wize expression. “Freddie, don’t be brutal.”
I sigh, and snatch the bag from my mother. “Fine. Whatever.” I march into the dressing room, pulling the curtain behind me. I am surrounded only by dim lighting and blank walls, and one lone mirror in the corner. I pause there, for a moment, listening to the dull thump of my heartbeat, then remove the plastic bag.
The dress is absolutely stunning. It’s a deep, royal blue, with an intricate lace detailing on the front, and sequins glittering along the beltline. I take a deep breath and strip down to my underwear, slipping the cold silky fabric over my head. I pause, revelling in the feel of it, then turn around to look at myself in the mirror.
My stomach clenches. What did I expect to see? Another Margot? Had I dared to hope? Perhaps. Instead, what I see is only myself, masquerading laughably in a dress far too large, too glamorous for my pale, gangly frame. It hangs off me in the front, swallows me whole in a burst of overpowering color. I shuffle outside, towards my mom and sister, seething to myself and wanting to disintegrate right into the plush carpeting. I can’t bring myself to look at their expressions, but I can feel them watching me, silently. The pause is agony.
Margot breaks the silence. “You know, it’s not so bad. Maybe… if you wore cutlets in your bra, to fill out the front a little…”
My mother: “Your sister’s right, you know. You’d look quite pretty in it.”
I drag my gaze away from the floor, to implore my mother with deep-set eyes, “Can I change back into my clothes now?”
As we are paying the price for the dress, the lady at the checkout counter envelops the three of us in bright, cheery conversation. She is young, with caramel hair and a pleasant face, inquiring of my mother, “Are these your daughters? They’re beautiful girls.” And then, in the strange, maniacal utterings of a madwoman–
“They look so alike.”
Here, in this moment, I am trying to prop up my wilted sack of a sister, as she lays brining in the tub. She pulls me down next to her, so she can whisper, in a half-sob, in my ear, “I didn’t mean to, you understand. It must have been an accident.”
I instruct her to tilt her head to the side, as I carefully turn on my father’s electric razor. Strangely numb, I watch her hair falling to the bathroom floor in a flurry of golden waves. As she sobs to herself about something enormous, unnamable, out of reach, I narrate a series of truths to myself.
The first truth is strictly rational. On the third of October, one year after she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression, my sister Margot hacked off a majority of her hair with a pair of safety scissors. My mother had left her alone for two hours while she went grocery shopping.
The second truth is observational. As I cradle her newly balded head, tracing my fingers around her ears, it occurs to me how familiar she is. How this soggy dress fits her the same as it did three years ago, when she wore pearls and golden heels, and kept flirting with the photographer. My beautiful sister, this strange, alien prom queen, no longer completely of this world.
And as I sit here with her, in the bathroom, on this island adrift in our darkened house, I am struck by the most evil truth of all: at its roots, her hair is brown.