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Watch Your Sister Disappear
Your sister is losing her voice. It feels like it happened overnight, her lips turning into rubber, but it’s been almost four months, and your sister, who would have suffocated you for calling her doll-like, spends her days sitting by the window, looking at everything and nothing, all at once. For what it’s worth, you try to remind her of her human self. You clamp down on the flap of fat on her arms but not a pipe. A deep paper cut exacts only a hiss of air. She has long, dark Rapunzel hair that thins into her calves, and with a pair of garden scissors, you give her the first haircut she has had in sixteen years. All her history is in her hair, and that’s the problem, you think, the weight of it. Hanging from your fists, her wiry hair looks like the tail of some dead creature. She wakes before you finish, and you stand back, wait for her anger that your eleven-year-old self knows quite well. She can have you in a choke hold in less than a minute or, if you are less careful, pinned on the floor with your arms bent, hanger shaped, behind your back. Your friends might call you a wuss for being beaten by a girl, but they are afraid of your sister too, maybe as much as they are in love with her. Her prettiness is barbed. Instead of coming for your jugular and calling you stripy for all your unusual birthmarks, she walks to the mirror and stares at this mangled image of herself. She takes your scissors, finishes the job.

           Since she dropped out of school, you and your sister draw in the afternoons, all stretched out on the carpet. She never used to spend time with you like this but what feels like tenderness darkens in your mind when you see her pictures. Wolves chomping on limbs and floating faces frozen in agony. Still you are surprised by your sister’s artistry, the way you can feel fear from some curvy lines. She doesn’t keep the drawings but asks you to burn them one by one in the yard with your stepfather’s lighter, the one he keeps in the watering pot for a midnight smoke. On your sister’s neck is a cloth bandage. She touches it whenever she looks at the wolf before the fire tears through it. Often you don’t even see the fabric because your sister dresses in turtlenecks even in the spring. “It’s glandular,” you tell your friends. “She doesn’t sweat.” You, on the other hand, find yourself sweating all the time, anxious with heat. What are you afraid of? From where your sister sits by the window, you imagine she can see an ash pile of wolves. They will return the next afternoon, and you will slay them, again and again.

           Your mother works as a receptionist in a dental office, down the street from a canning factory, so the air smells of briny string beans and peaches. She is confident your sister will return to school, even if she is held back a year. Your stepfather seems less bothered because he’s often an idiot and still bets money on horse races. When he says things about your sister like She’ll make a good wife, not a squeak, you want to pull out his vocal cords, and then he says something like he’s so lucky to have two kids so late in life and you don’t know what to do with your hands. At school, your teacher asks how you’re doing. “A wolf got my sister,” you tell her and she pats your head. “I know, I know,” she says.

           By your sister’s bedside are books about extraterrestrials. She has always been interested in other worlds, especially after your father crossed over, head dived from a bridge, but now it seems like all she can think of is elsewhere. You ask her if the wolves are from another planet and she shakes her head. This girl Fairuza in town was found lying by a creek with her limbs extended into a star, her nose bloody. When she woke, she said she saw astral lights, teacup-sized orbs floating above her. Fairuza is also crazy. Like she once said her father murdered her mother when she really just went back to Iran. She was your sister’s friend back when your sister talked to people, acted like a normal human, or at least a normal, slightly strange human. It seems plausible that your sister has been replaced by a simulacrum, a body double, but you’ve had this thought for years whenever you were with her in public and suddenly she turned quiet and shy when handing money over to a cashier or meeting the gaze of an older classmate. Only later at home would she acknowledge your presence, try to pinch your nose to test your breathing. Still, you’ve watched too much X-Files to let this alien-swap theory go and you want to check her teeth for implants, but unfortunately for you your sister sleeps with a lockjaw you can’t decode. She rarely shows her teeth but last week when she was watching some film with your mother— some sort of pointless, crappy romance—you caught the last scene where the man tells the woman that she is made for him and kisses her. You moaned through it like someone was stabbing you in the ribs while your sister just bit down on her thumb, revealing the crust of her teeth. Her eyes were fixed on the space just above the television. 

           Your sister used to be a walker, could spend hours moving in circles around your neighborhood, and maybe that’s why you’re a little surprised she never ran away. She would come home late with her fingers numb or so dehydrated she just huddled on the couch, breathing in each sip of water with a straw. She carried home pine cones, acorns, a perfectly veined heart-shaped leaf. Like she was a squirrel or bird preparing a nest. She once didn’t return home and your mother told the neighbors and they searched the surrounding forests but couldn’t find her. While you ossified in the cold, she was already home, seated by the window, watching people call out her name. It is how you feel now, standing right next to her but miles away, as she waits sealed inside.

           You read to her from her alien books because you think one of them might have a cure and she seems slightly interested. Humans are portals to the universe, you say, and slide your arm behind her until it surfaces on her shoulder. She almost laughs but just plops grapes into her mouth, lets the juice dribble from the corner of her lips. You heard your friend Aiguo say this to a girl before they pummeled each other’s bodies in his parents’ car, trying desperately to touch the milky galaxy through each other. You’ve never been with a girl, but it startles you how the simple sight of flesh can make you want to implode. Three years back you heard your mother and stepfather growling in the dark, but your mother now just comes home and watches television, her sweatshirts thick as blubber. There are many ways to escape.

           The fluorescent glow-in-the-dark stars still string along the ceiling of your sister’s room. You tell her that she’s too old to be afraid of the dark, but she just ignores you, listens to your stepfather closing the fridge. She used to tell you that no one would love you because of all your birthmarks mottling your skin but not to worry because she would have space for you, her little striped brother. You curl up next to her and tell her you’ll keep a lookout for the wolf. They are afraid of fire, you say, and flick on the lighter you stole from your stepfather. She puts her finger through the flame.

           You wonder if she misses things from the outside world. Besides walking in the yard, she hardly ventures outdoors and her aversion to everybody except you makes this mission to find her voice more urgent. “All the air here is stale,” you tell her before you go kneel in your room and pray to all the human portals to bring back your sister from whatever dimension she’s trapped in. You imagine the overweight postman containing the force and mass to create even a larger portal.

           At school all you can talk about is the wolf and the bandage and the grayness in your sister’s eyes. Your friends are worried about your perpetual snarl, the suspicious way you eye any stranger. You carry your lighter with you always. When a freckled boy in class mentions your sister, you try to light his curly hair on fire and your step-father is called to pick you up. “Are you trying to finish school early too like your sister?” he asks in the car, and you pinch your left hand hard to keep it from balling into a fist.

           At home he drinks a beer and tells you to sit with him. He’s watching some game show with a female host. He rests a cigarette on his lip and pats down on his shirt, searching for his lighter, and then turns to you, remembering. You reach over and light it for him. “Sorry,” you say and drop it in his lap and even he is surprised by your apology. You are hunched with your head on your knees and can’t help but imagine how the fire coiled through the fuse of KJ’s hair.

           “All those cups of semen in my twenties and you’re the closest to a son I will ever have,” your stepfather says before telling you about his sexual adventures. You tell him humans are portals to the galaxy. He glances at the television, asks you if you would link portals with the host. When you hesitate, he helps you out, says he would pick the one with fat thighs. After some channel surfing, you find a group of women chatting and you both rate them one to ten, and your step-father laughs hard, hissing, when you give someone a negative one. Your stepfather tells you how he lost his virginity when he was around your age with this older girl with two uteruses, which might have made her more fertile or more willing to use one up fast. All he remembers is the sensation, which he tries to recreate for you by opening a beer can and taking that first fizzy sip. You take the second sip and burp. He smiles and tells you how he married twice before your mother. His first sweetheart was a beauty but vengeful, sleeping with other men once she found out about his other ladies. “That’s what you get when you marry a woman who doesn’t mind being a slut.”

           You hear the soft shuffling behind you, but you don’t turn because you want to draw her out. Maybe you already know what you will see, and you are afraid of seeing it so clearly: you feel your claws. You take a few more sips, watch your stepfather slobber up the women on the television. His cologne intoxicates you, makes you think of your father, your father’s father, all the fathers that made you. Your stepfather squeezes your shoulder and says, “That’s my boy.” The words rub against you like a salve that can heal your hurt. You tell him how you heard a story of a girl who was wide as a moon and let anyone in and then lost herself in some galaxy, thousands of light-years away. Your stepfather nods and closes his eyes, begins to drift to sleep. You wait, watch the swell of his stomach, the flicker of the television, before you hear her. She is crying and you hear her. 

Akil Kumarasamy is the author of the story collection Half Gods (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). She is the 2021 recipient of the Bard Fiction Prize, and her debut novel, Meet Us by the Roaring Sea (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), is forthcoming in August 2022.