It had been an agonizing past couple of weeks, but they were finally home. My stomach leaped, and I started to race down the stairs ready to say goodbye to Mrs. Jones and hello freedom. I heard my parent’s hushed tones from down the stairs and Mrs. Jones worn out voice as well. Halting on the wooden steps, I peeked around the thin wall divider, ready to surprise them. But something stopped me in my delight. A tiny young girl no more than three feet tall stood in between my parents. Mrs. Jones, an aged old woman who liked to dress in dusty wool sweaters that always had me sneezing, stood uncomfortably close to the short little girl. Mrs. Jones bony hand stroked the girl’s head as if to offer some comfort. I puzzled over who she could be when it dawned on me. My eyes widened wondering how I’d never figured Mrs.Jones had children of her own. Pity filled my gaze as I peered at the tiny girl glancing up at the old bat with anxiety. I’d feel the same way if my mom were Mrs. Jones.
I squinted trying to get a better look at her before remembering I was still on the staircase. I slipped falling in spectacular fashion to the foot of the steps.
“Emma!” my mother’s horrified voice screeched rushing over to me. I pulled myself up while she fussed over my nonexistent injuries.
“Child, you best behave now,” Mrs. Jones waggled a crooked finger at me. Typical, the old croon had no affection left in her bony body. Sympathy sparked in my chest again as I glanced over to her daughter. Poor girl. She stared inexplicably as my mother checked my legs for bruises.
“Next time try walking, I know it’s not as fast but just give it a try ok?” my mom huffed clamping a hand down on my shoulder. Immediately my back stiffed, a hand on my shoulder usually meant one thing, my mom was feeling apprehensive. She pushed me over to where my dad and Mrs. Jones still stood shaking her head hopelessly.
“Emma, we’d like you to meet someone,” my mom brought me face to face with the small girl. Or at least tried to, but the girl hid completely behind my father's legs, blocking most of her appearance from view.
“This is Airi,” my mom started gently. “She’s going to be your little sister,” she finished. I was so focused on getting a proper glimpse of the girl that it took a second before her words sunk in.
“Wait, what?” I glanced sharply at my mom. “How can Mrs. Jones daughter be my sister?” I shook my head bemused; then an even more daunting image appeared in my mind. “A-Are we,” I pointed between Mrs. Jones and I, horrified, “are we related?” Disgust stained the edges of my voice, the mere thought of it causing me shivers. Mrs. Jones frowned her cheeks turning bright crimson.
“No hon,” my father answered with a slight smile. “We’re going to be adopting her,” he practically ended up dragging her out from behind him. “Airi come say hi.” I stood there dumbfounded as she came into full view. Now in full view her once charming petite figure demonized in front of my very eyes.
Dark unruly hair that had to be the thinnest strands I’d ever laid eyes on fell in long waves down her back and face helping hide glinting black eyes. Her skin, however, was in pale contrast, a shade under ivory paste.
My mother nudged me through my stupefied state. Hastily I plastered a smile on my face and held out my hand. After a short pause, she removed her thin arm from behind her back lifting it as if in the form of truce. Her oil stained hand made want to retract mine, but I shook it anyway, making an effort not to rub it off on my jeans. She didn’t smile back but hid behind my father's legs again clenching his loose jeans. A twinge of irritation snaked its way across my face, but I diligently schooled my features.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” the words felt like ash in my mouth.
* * *
Of course, we were going to be sharing rooms. Mom said it was because there was no space but I knew it was because she wanted us to be closer.
“Here’s a box of her things, help her unpack ok?” my mom cast a worried glance between the two of us.
Unpack? I looked around my perfectly designed pink bedroom, the space already seemly too tight with just her presence, I casted a brief glance at Airi.
“Sure thing mom,” the words were forced from my mouth. She patted my head and left us to it. I picked up Airi’s single cardboard box pushing it into the middle of the floor and ripping it open uncaring for any fragile things that might be inside. I peeked inside noting the lack of items. Some spare clothes and a few books that upon closer inspection looked to be written in some strange language. I stared at one for a few seconds wondering what it could be when something sinister grabbed my attention. Unsure of whether or not I wanted to touch it I lifted the doll out of the box, my eyes scrunching up as I got a better look. It was obviously years old, many more than the little girl who stood before me. It’s button sewn eyes looked pulled straight out of Coraline, and it’s faded red dress was reduced to a few scraps of fabric. I would've tossed the thing away if I wasn’t sure if it would curse me for doing so.
“Here’s your... thing,” I held it out to her not wanting to be near it any longer. Faster than I’d seen her move yet she snatched up the doll and hugged it to her chest staring at me through slits in her eyes. Had I interrupted some sort of worship between her and the crazy voodoo doll?
“Sorry,” I murmured, putting the rest of her things away. I glanced down at the books again and it dawned on me then that she must be from out of the country.
“Hey…” I asked timidly, “you do speak English...right?” raising an eyebrow. She didn’t respond but instead, just clutched the doll tight like it was her lifeline. A few more minutes went by, and I turned away shrugging.
“Guess not,” I muttered.
* * *
“Ohaiyo,” that’s what we said when we woke up now. Mom had started correcting me a few weeks after Airi had shown up. I made sure to stumble through the words each morning whenever my parents were within hearing distance. When it was just Airi and me, however, I made sure to give her a placid, “Morning.” I wasn’t sure if she’d actually noticed, but a distinct flush to her cheeks always left me smirking.
* * *
I had taken to a small corner of the house where I could be alone. I’d dragged over the art set my mother had gotten me for my tenth birthday ready to enjoy the quiet time. Airi had slowly come out of her shell, she’d started smiling more, talking more -turns out she could speak English-, and last week even let me touch her forbidden doll.
* * *
“Onee-chan,” is what she started calling me. The first time I’d heard it I wondered if I’d misheard her. My mother seemed confused as well.
“No her name is Emma, Emma,” she gestured to me. But Airi didn’t stop her odd habit, “Onee-chan,” she’d say smiling.
* * *
I was running late that day, and I still had to walk Airi to the bus stop. Airi was still in elementary school while I took the middle school’s bus, the two were separated by a couple of blocks, but I was tasked with the job of getting her there.
I dragged her by the wrist along while she struggled to keep my pace.
“I can walk myself,” her small voice was muffled by the wind. I glanced down at her then looked over at the bus stop a block away.
“Are you sure?” I questioned eager to move on but knowing that my parents would kill me if they found out I’d left her to wait for the bus alone. She nodded patting my hand.
“Thank you onee-chan,” she patted towards the stop. Hastendley I rushed back a few blocks where my own bus waited, barely slipping inside before the plastic doors shut tight. We drove past Airi’s stop, the flash of kids going by too quickly for me to catch any faces. I shook it off; even Airi could find her way to a bus stop. I slumped back in the worn leather chair.
It would be the last time I ever saw her.
* * *
My mother’s muffled cries at night and my father’s hollowed gaze fell like dead weight on my shoulders. Airi’s doll sat untouched on her bed always staring, the accusation piercing in its eyes. A few weeks later, I’d decided to look up “Onee-chan,” see if it meant demon or stupid in Japanese. In my heart I hoped it did, maybe knowing she’d had a horrible nickname for me all along, would lessen my pain. Lessen my guilt.
My eyes scrolled through different translations none of them seeming to have any relation. I retyped the spelling, O-n-e-e-c-h-a-n, hearing Airi’s voice in my head. I clicked enter.
My hands clenched hard enough to draw blood, and a fresh wave of pain washed through me.