Scholastic Writing Award Winner: Sister, Sister Sister, Sister Scholastic Silver Key in Short Story winner By VSA Student, Grade 9 “You gonna be okay?” I lift my head from its hanging position and realize I have been standing by the door for two minutes, staring into the void, until my husband snapped me out of my trance. “What? Yeah. Yeah, I’ll be fine. I’m totally great.” His gaze lingers, and I know that he doesn’t believe a word I said. Yet he purses his lips and nods solemnly, knowing I would never let him worry about me as long as I could help it. He wraps his arms around me and plants a loving kiss on my lips. I accept it, but give nothing in return. I’m too numb to feel, to love, to give. “I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times, Kay, but…your mother was an amazing person. I was so sure nothing could bring her down, but cancer proved me wrong. I just want you to know that I love you and she loves you, too.” I curve the sides of my lips up into what hopefully resembles a smile. “I know, Mark,” I assure, making sure my tone screams I’M FINE I’M FINE I’M FINE. “I love you, too. Now I have to go or else everyone’s going to start wondering why her daughter isn’t at her funeral.” I kiss him on the cheek and grab a little white box wrapped in a pale purple ribbon, tucking it in my purse before I walk out the door towards my modest gray sedan. The funeral, my mother had specified on her deathbed, is a family-only function. No matter how many times I tried to convince her to let me bring Mark, she had refused. “Blood is thicker than water,” she repeated. “Lovers might leave, but family is forever.” While slightly put off by the fact that she assumed Mark and I were going to split up in the future, I simply shut my mouth and gave in. The guest list limitations mean that I’ll see the one person I’ve been dreading to see for years. My sister. I close my eyes and try to picture Ellie the last way I saw her, on that hot summer day by our swimming pool. I see an eighteen-year-old girl, laughing with her boyfriend and her friends, the living embodiment of perfection. There isn’t a single split end in her blonde locks, a single roll of fat over her bikini bottoms, or a single smudge of mascara on her eyelid. And everyone else sees it too—I can tell by the way they eye her with awe. I search for a flaw, a mishap, some kind of imperfection, but I discover none. Even in my brain, she’s just perfect. I open my eyes to avoid dwelling on her. Stop wasting your time thinking about her. She doesn’t deserve it. How is it that even when she’s not here, even when I haven’t spoken to her in years, she’s still the center of attention? Determined to show up to the funeral for my mother and my mother only, I step into my car, slam the door, and blast an Adele song to drown out the thoughts. My thoughts, however, have other plans. They don’t stop coming. And shocker, they’re all about her. Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” blasted from the room beside mine at maximum volume. The very frame of the house seemed to shake as Avril belted high notes and my sister and her friends screamed with her. “Hey hey you you I don’t like your—” The microscopic words on my SAT textbook seemed to blur and jump as my brain struggled to focus. Fed up, I threw a thick Harry Potter book at my cream-colored wall, temporarily shocking them into silence, and my ears were finally given a break from their terrible off-key singing that had been disturbing my studies for hours. “Please be quiet!” Moments later, “Tik Tok” by Kesha blared even louder, accompanied by laughter-filled belting. I gritted my teeth and shoved my textbook down, sprinted to my sister’s room and rapped the door quickly, not stopping until I heard the click of the radio shutting, the groans of my sister’s friends, and the creak of the door opening slightly. Ellie popped her dainty head out of the tiny crack. “What?” “I can’t focus on my SATs with you screaming like this. You’re not even good at singing.” “Aw. Cry about it.” She began to shut the door in my face, but I pushed her aside using all my frustration-fueled strength. Sitting there, on zebra-print bean bags on Ellie’s pink carpeted floor, were six girls who scowled at me. They all looked like Ellie. Opened cigarette packs and rolled blunts and lighters and empty vodka bottles were spread throughout. The putrid scent of marijuana mixed with tobacco made me sick. But nothing made me more sick than seeing the smoking cigarette resting naturally between Ellie’s hands as her amber eyes glowered at me. “Are you shitting me right now?” I whisper-shouted. “Drugs?” “It’s literally just weed,” she muttered, rolling her eyes. “And I’m literally sixteen. I can do what I want.” “Ellie.” I snatched the cigarette from her. “You are a good kid. You got, like, 1600s on your SATs. You played in Carnegie Hall. You’re on your way to an Ivy League. You are not a druggie and you are not an alcoholic.” “Okay, Mom,” she snapped, her expression unchanged. I scoffed. Who was the girl I was looking at? “Fine. Should I tell her, or should you?” “No!” Ellie cried, blocking the door. For the first time, genuine fear crossed her eyes. I smirked, and for a brief moment, I relished in the power I had over her…but soon, the feeling evolved into concern. “You can’t. Please. Mom will never, ever, ever forgive me.” “Why shouldn’t I, Ellie? Why shouldn’t I let her know so that she can put an end to this and you can quit killing your body?” I reached for the door handle. A cold hand slapped my cheek with so much force I lost my balance. I turned my head slowly to face her, face my own sister who had just hit me. Her hands shook and her face was ghostly white. But her lips were pursed and her eyes were hard. “If you do this, I’ll never speak to you again.” I bore no response. I hoped my expression was enough of an answer. “I’m not afraid of you.” I rushed out of the room and down the stairs to my mom, feeling the laser burn of Ellie’s hateful eyes in the back of my neck… The pit in my stomach grows larger as I pull into the parking lot of the funeral home, eyeing the few cars parked next to mine, trying to pinpoint which car belongs to whom. Careful not to slam the large red truck next to mine, I step out of the car, glancing in my purse to make sure the box is still there. It rests upon dozens of keys and hand lotions and tissue packs. My eyes bounce between the box and the short brick building in which my mother lies, and the reality of the situation suddenly whips me in the face. I knew my mother was dead. I knew after I got the text to rush to the hospital, I knew after I watched the light in her eyes leave as her cold hands clutched mine in her hospital bed, I knew after I broke down in uncontrollable sobs in Mark’s arms, screaming and cursing at God inside my head. I knew as I stayed in bed for weeks, refusing to eat, speak, or shower. And I knew there was nothing I could do about it. But as I near the home, I become increasingly aware that I’m about to see my own mother lying in a casket. Each step I take places more and more pressure on my body, and by the time my clammy hand clasps the cool brass door handle, I can no longer feel my legs. Lifting my hand from the handle, I realize I’m shaking uncontrollably, with my feet glued to the floor. I take the door handle again…then let go. An invisible force from within keeps me from being a proper daughter and sending my mother off like I should. An incomprehensible feeling that tears at my heart little by little. Guilt. Guilt for what? Before her death, I had been nothing but gracious to my mother, feeding her, telling her stories, embracing her like a good daughter should. What could I have possibly done to inflict guilt upon myself? My mind wanders to all the times we spent together, scanning through my memories for hints and clues. It finally rests upon one Thanksgiving night two years ago: my mother’s first month in the hospital. “What are you thankful for, Kay?” My mother sat up as straight as she could in her hospital bed, feigning strength. No matter how sick she was, she always wore her bravest face in front of others, especially her children. “Just the normal stuff. Mark, my friends, you…you know. My family.” “Your whole family?” I froze, a chill running down my spine. I focused on my sweatshirt strings, wrapping them around my finger. “Yeah. Mark, you, and my aunt and uncles” “Kay.” My mother’s eyes, full of disappointment, bored through my skull. I knew what she was going to say, and I didn’t want to hear it. “Maybe if she spoke to me, I’d be a little more thankful for her,” I snapped. “It’s not like she’s here visiting you every day.” “She’s your sister.” “So?” “Kay, I want you to understand something. Look at me,” she insisted. She clutched my hands in hers and spoke slowly. “I’m not going to be here for much longer, and when I do, I’ll be with your dad, but you’ll be alone. If you don’t have Ellie, you have no one. I want you two to be sisters again. Promise me you’ll do this one thing for me before I go.” The helplessness in her voice and the hopeful look in her eyes chipped a small shard away from my hatred for Ellie. “I promise.” For years, I cared for my mother. I accompanied her on weekends, took her out for walks during the summer, and bought her her favorite chocolates on holidays—and not once had she asked me to do any of this. I simply did it because a daughter’s bond with her mother is unbreakable, and I owed her, for carrying me into adulthood. Yet I could not complete the one favor she asked me to do. What kind of a daughter does that make me? “Excuse me?” A familiar voice jolts me from my thoughts. When I turn my head, a tall, slender woman is watching me. She lifts her boxy black sunglasses and rests them atop her luscious golden locks. Her fiery amber eyes narrow as she looks me up and down. She cocks her head ever so slightly. “Kay?” “Ellie,” I return, attempting to hide the shakiness in my voice. I discreetly scan her every aspect to analyze everything I’ve missed for the past twenty years. She wears a tight, black velvet minidress, slightly revealing for a funeral, and carries a flashy Prada purse in her right hand. Her features haven’t changed in the slightest—her eyes still carry a youthful sparkle, her nose is still an impeccable ski slope, and her lips are still placed in her signature pout. Yet something’s different. Where there should be wrinkles, unnaturally tight skin surrounds her cheekbones. “Botox?” Ellie laughs dryly. “You haven’t seen your sister in twenty years and your first word is botox?” I giggle slightly. “I’m sorry.” “You’re fine. My surgeon has to fix it soon, it looks awful.” “You look great,” I add, truthfully. Two normal sisters might hug after not seeing each other for two decades. But when I try to open my arms for embrace, they won’t leave the sides of my body, as if stuck there by magnetic force. So I resort to complimenting her. “Not a day over twenty-five.” She smiles, showing off two rows of pearly whites. “Thanks. You, too.” She opens the door. “Shall we?” I nod, following her inside, unsure of what to think of her civility towards me, her supposed sworn enemy. The funeral home is a modest one-room building, its cream-colored walls adorned with curtain-covered windows and its low ceilings cracked. Dim lights set the ambience for the ceremony. Though not the most luxurious, it is the one where her parents’ funerals were held, so my father thought it would be best to host hers here as well. “So,” Ellie starts. “How have the last twenty years been?” “They’ve been pretty good. Graduated college, got a job, got married…” I eye the uncomfortable look on her face and blush. “Oh, um, I’m really sorry. I probably should have invited you.” “It’s fine,” she replies, but her eyes say otherwise. “I didn’t expect you to.” After a few moments of silence, she asks, “You know, why did we stop talking anyway?” “You seriously don’t remember?” I shake my head in disbelief. “After I busted you for doing drugs, Mom and Dad grounded you for, like, months. And from then until your graduation, you made my life a living hell.” “Ah.” “You ruined my prom dress, made up rumors about me so that my friends would ditch me, and constantly made up lies to make me look bad in front of our parents,” I recalled bitterly. “You hated me.” “I didn’t hate you. I never hated you. I was just upset.” “About what? Being Mom and Dad’s favorite for your entire life?” I practically spit as my volume rises with each quivering word I utter. “Being the gorgeous, kind, understanding genius while I was simply the sister? Only receiving compliments from any family member who ever visited us? Outshining me for my entire damn life while I was stuck in your shadow, stuck being the worthless daughter who was never enough for our parents?” “Is that what you think? That my life was easy like that?” Ellie scoffs, shaking her head. “I didn’t just have a god-given talent, you know. I worked for my grades. I stayed up for hours studying and doing homework while you were sulking in your room just so I would have time to maintain a social life. If I wasn’t the best, I was the disappointment of the family.” “Maybe then you’d finally know how it feels,” I shoot coolly, crossing my arms. How dare she complain about being a disappointment? “That’s the point, Kay. I didn’t know how it felt. So when Mom and Dad shunned me, my whole life fell apart,” she explained. “They loved you so much. They always talked about how worried they were about you, even when I couldn’t see anything was wrong. Even on the day of my graduation, they were busy comforting you.” I suddenly remember glowering at my sister as she shone like a star in her graduation gown, her brilliant toothy smile blinding those who dared looking her in the eye. I remember slumping in my chair, crossing my arms, and rolling my eyes at every concerned comment my mother made. I remember brushing off my father’s hug and ignoring their questions. I lower my eyes in shame. “I wanted to be your friend, Kay. But any time I talked to you, you looked at me like I was some kind of terrorist, and I never even knew why.” Ellie’s voice breaks, and for once, I see behind her perfect-girl facade. She looks like a helpless little girl who wants nothing more than to be with her sister as she sniffs and wipes at her eyes. “Did you know that I wasn’t invited to any Thanksgiving or holiday party just because you were there? Did you know that Mom and Dad didn’t contact me unless they needed help with money or something?” Without giving me the opportunity to answer, she turns and walks away. The ability to form words abandons me, leaving my mouth dry as I watch her turn her back on me. The devil horns I once pictured on her head faded. I had always been trapped in my own little glass bubble, blaming the world for tossing me aside, cursing my sister, when she had been knocking on the outside for years, only to be ignored by me. Did I really hate my sister because she was evil? Or did I hate her for being everything I wanted to be, and ended up wasting a lifetime of potential memories instead? My watch reads 3:04. The ceremony begins at 4:00. Making my way towards the glossy wooden casket, I try to steady my breathing and relax my conscience, before I have to see her. My mother lies there, still and unmoving, her face no longer bearing the wrinkles of a tired woman battling constantly. Instead, she looks tranquil. Not happy or sad, but peaceful. A tear slithers down my cheek as my memories of her and I run through my mind. My first bike ride. My first bad grade. When my father had been the one in the casket, I had leaned on my mother’s shoulder. As I gingerly placed my box by her hand, I felt as if the entire world around me had suddenly gone dark… “What’s in the box?” Without turning my head, I know it’s Ellie. “Mom really wanted this necklace for her birthday,” I explained, my voice shaking. “And if she had just… if she had just stayed for two weeks…” The sobs come little by little, but soon, I let all my tears slide down my cheeks and let Ellie pull me into a tight embrace. Before I know it, she weeps into my shoulder as well. It’s been decades since I last hugged Ellie, but I can’t feel the unfamiliarity through my sorrow. As I pull her in tighter, a surge of warmth flows through my veins. Neither of us say a word, but there is no need. Holding my sister in my arms, I have a family once again.