It’s in a swirling haze of colors and smoke that you find with a morbid, indifferent curiosity that you may very well hate yourself. Imagine this: your sister stands before you in the living room, her hair lank around her shoulders but her toenails painted a bright red that glistens in the meager light of the lamp. You note somewhere in the back of your mind that her toenails match her lipstick, and inwardly congratulate her on the coordination.
She is standing in front of the old end table with the broken drawer in her tank top that has ridden up over her stomach, one hand tucked over her rather flat chest and the other holding a cigarette to her mouth. She takes another long drag and blows the smoke right into your face, and you pretend that her eyes aren’t avoiding yours. Your nose twitches at the familiar scent of the smoke, but you find that you don’t have the energy to cough. Both of you pretend that you can’t hear the screaming and slamming cabinets coming from down the hall.
You wonder if this is the day. She is almost eighteen and your brother may have already left, but she won’t leave you, her precious baby sibling, behind. You just know it. So you wonder and you hope that this is the day that she decides to leave, because that means you can get out of here, too.
The TV flickers in the corner, the low hum of indistinguishable words floating around the room. For a moment, you meet the filmy yellow eyes of the old cat as it slinks back into the house, and you think, It’s back again. But then your sister blows another lungful of smoke out, and your gaze turns back to her. The colored plastic crystals hanging in the windows flash watered down light across her features. The meager sun shines in, and you think that maybe, for a moment in another life in some other place, she may have been a little more than ordinarily pretty, but then she huffs out some more smoke and her lipstick goes back to being smudged and her mascara goes back to being two days old and the lines of her face return and go back to being tired. She still won’t look at you. You hear footsteps in the hall, and you know that she heard them, too, by the way she hastily yanks her tank top down and stubs the cigarette out and smoothes a hand over her slightly greasy hair.
Neither of you look up as a figure stomps past the doorway from the direction of the back room, and neither of you move as the screen front door slams shut and silence echoes around you for a moment before the crying starts deeper in the house. Gone again, you think. After a moment, she sighs and a brief flicker of hope quivers in your chest before she turns to the door without looking at you and, with a quiet whisper of “I’m sorry”, pads through the doorway and down the hall to the bedroom you share, where the door closes with a quiet thump, leaving you all alone in the living room.
You close your eyes briefly and urge your feet to move across the floor to open the window and let the smell of smoke out, but you can’t, not yet, because over the years that smell of smoke has become attached to her, and even as you hate her for not taking you away from here, even as your resentment grows because she is not strong enough or brave enough to leave like your brother did, even as you start to feel bitter about them both for not getting you out, the thought of her still sends a whisper of safe through your body and you’re not quite willing to give that up just yet. You find that you kind of maybe hate yourself for that, because if you can’t let go, then how will you ever leave?
You listen for a while longer, standing silently in the living room. The crying dies down, and your sister behind the bedroom door is silent and for a brief moment you wonder if she’s still there, or if she’s hauled herself out of the window through the ripped screen like she does at night after she thinks you’re asleep. The thought gives you a detached sense of loneliness, because she is your last ally in this house now that your brother is gone and even though she always comes back, you’re never quite sure if this is going to be the one time she doesn’t. You wonder if you’ll ever be brave enough to shimmy through the screen late at night and get caught doing it, and then you wonder when it became a matter of bravery to leave.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.