When you came home she was sitting on the sofa watching a reality show about an animal shelter. She was slender, long-haired and poised. She could pull off the babydoll-dress-and- mary-janes look. If you tried that you’d look like the wolf from little red riding hood: like you’d eaten someone’s grandma and stole her clothes. Your stomach bulging out of her nightgown. Popping the buttons off her apron as blood and saliva dribbled down the crocheted shawl. She wore a rabbit mask made of old plastic. The ears rigid and brittle. This must be your sister, you thought, and thudded onto the cushion beside her. The sofa was a leather job your mom dragged home from a garage sale. You weren’t allowed to eat on it. According to Mom, stains never came out of leather. You looked over to your Maybe- Sister. “Good program, huh?” She nodded. “A few minutes ago the patron came by on a surprise visit and they had to hide the sick cats in the closet so they wouldn’t be suspected for abuse.” She took television very seriously. “Sounds pretty intense.” Despite yourself, you smiled. “It was”. The two of you watched for a few minutes in silence. You were hungry. You filled a bowl with trail mix in the kitchen and sat it down on the sofa carefully because the chocolate chips had gone melty. You didn’t want the Maybe-Sister took a pinch. You sure didn’t have to worry about her spilling it in the crevices between the cushions. “So,” you said. “What’s up with the mask?” She didn’t answer. It unnerved you, but you couldn’t stop looking at it. The plastic was a creamy color, yellowed by age, and apart from the whiskers bristling out above the mouth it was completely smooth. Not a hint of expression breached that placid surface. Even the eyeholes, covered over with a dark mesh, were vacant. You tried to think back the last time You had a sister. On the screen a woman swooned over a labradoodle. “Oh my god,” she said, flipping golden hair over her shoulder and gushing kisses onto it’ nose. “She’s the little girl I always wanted.” The program broke into an advertisement for cat food and a PSA about teen pregnancy. You had to sham your way through a Great Gatsby paper so you went upstairs. Your room was chaotic but comfortable. You plucked Gatsby off the shelf with your schoolbooks. Mixed in were the books Mom had bought you: Little Women, 500 More Things to Crochet, and a Wellesley College publication “filled with advice” for girls (“Recycle! Do your best!”). There were also your own books: memoirs about taming wild animals and hacking log cabins out of the inflexible forest. From your desk you could see into Mrs. Donner’s yard. It was a feral tangle of vine and thistle. Mom was always giving her unsolicited advice on soil chemistry and pruning technique. They both loved their gardens, you thought, but in different ways. The words swam like fish on the page. They passed into your eyes and vanished. The lines of logic that should string them together eluded you. A man, a woman, and a party. A girl, a sofa, a rabbit mask. Did it make sense? Should it have made sense? “I think Ginger wants a walk,” said Maybe Sister, standing in the door frame. You hadn’t heard her pad up the stairs. You went to the door and sure enough, old Gingersnap was dancing around her feet. God, you loved that dog. You taught him how to leap hurdles in fifth grade, and he could clear a trash can in a bound. Since then his back and hips had gotten creaky, but he could fetch as well as ever. You fumbled for your shoes, which you had kicked under the bed. Maybe-Sister did not flinch from the doorframe. “Want to come?” you asked. Ginger thought you were talking to him and went nuts. Maybe-Sister shrugged. “I guess.” Something fluttered in your gut. A small victory. You snapped the leash onto Ginger and he pulled you out into the yard. Mom had just put in a row of lettuces, and they stood in military rows beside the radishes. Ginger towed you down the block and past Sue the pianist’s bungalow and the ranch house that Mr. Gregate lived in. Mr. Gregate was a hoarder. There were coathangers and naked barbies porcupining his garden beds, and his windows were plastered with New Yorker cartoons. Once you went up to read them, which Mom gave you hell about. “It may be a pigsty, but it’s his pigsty,” she said, and you filed the line away to use as an excuse for the state of your room. “So,” you said. “Have you, uh, been home a long time?” “That depends of your definiton of ‘a long time,” Maybe-Sister fingered the crocheted collar of her dress. “So how long have you been home?” “A while,” she said. You laughed. “What’s so funny?” “I don’t know,” you said, mimicking her vagueness. On Main Street there were some hippies with booths of snap peas and edible flowers and hemp body butter. You handed Ginger’s leash to Maybe-Sister and rooted around in your pocket for the five dollars you knew you had stuffed in there earlier. “What’ll it be?” asked the dreadlocked man. He was pitched forward in his folding chair, counting crumpled bills. You looked at Maybe-Sister and at the produce on the table. You had an idea, and it was kind of cheeky. “Um, some carrots, please,” you said. He sold you the world’s funkiest bundle of carrots. They were multicolored and gnarled and had soil worn into their creases. One had split into two tines. Their tops were a froth of green. When you chomped into one, it was surprisingly sweet and sharp. You stopped at the vacant lot on the corner and sat on a cinderblock. Maybe-Sister sat down beside you. You could hear her sniffing. “Smells like summer coming, huh?” “That is correct,” she said. Maybe-Sister took a carrot and you and smelled the air together. Mostly, it had vacant-lot smells: straw and beer cans and dust. But it had the crackling smell of rain storms on cement as well. You crunched your carrots. Ginger leaned against your legs, so you stroked him between the ears and he just sort of melted. You wished Maybe Sister would do that. Loosen up. Take off the mask. When the carrots were gone she seemed antsy, brushing imaginary dirt from her dress and arranging the pleats again and again. Ginger rammed his nose into her crotch, then motioned for her to get up. “He wants to play tag, I think,” Said Maybe-Sister. “Yeah,” you said. “Let’s do that.” She was lighter on her feet, but you were wearing sensible shoes, so you were evenly matched. She was probably your sister, after all. You had probably wrestled and raced a million times before. “And who will be it?” she asked. You grinned. “Nose Goes!” You tapped your nose. “Okay, then,” she said. “I am It. On the count of ten….nine…” You hopped up and ran to the far corner of the field, then stopped, bouncing on the balls of your feet. School had been sluggish and muggish all day. It felt good to move your body. Maybe-Sister ran towards you, leaping over cinder blocks and tussocks of thistle. You zigged to the right, zagged to the left, zapped backwards. You crashed into the chainlink fence and she caught you there, with a tap on the shoulder. “Nice work,” you said. “How can you do this with the mask? See, I mean?” She giggled, demure. “It’s easy, once you get used to it.” “Can I see, then?” “Nice try. But you’re it, remember.” With that she pushed away from the chainlink like a swimmer off a pool wall. You swore you saw her slip a skip in there. A twirl. A cloud passed into the sun’s path, everything sunk a little dimmer. After ten silent counts you followed, chased her to the perimeter and all around it. Your blood was moving in your thighs. It was exhilarating. At one point you plowed through a cluster of ripe dandelions and sent the thistledown spin drifting. It lodged in your hair and your nose making you sneeze. You used an old tactic, let her have a comfortable lead and let her lag, tire. Then you made a mad scramble. Old Gingersnap, who had been flitting in between the two of you, panted along at your side as you careened into her. She whirled off balance. “Hey! You got me.” Her voice had a new vibrancy to it. “Hey hey,” you said. “I got you.” The cloud slipped away. You could feel your pupils retract as the sun flooded the field. You pulled her into a hug. She leaned in, breathed in. Her shoulderblades were fragile as a hatchling’s wings. She smelled like the binding of phone books, homemade cake batter, and something else, a musky bitter-sweetness like vanilla. “And what do I smell like?” you asked. “Hmm?” she turned her head, and the mask was touching your shoulder now. It was cool and charged with a faint static. “Sorry,” you stuffed your hands into your pockets. “That was a weird question.” “No it’s not,” she said. “People carry whole stories on their clothes. You smell like graphite and paper-” “Those are school smells. I shanked a chemistry test today.” She cocked her head. “Is shanked good or bad?” “It depends,” you said “In this case, bad.” “Oh. But anyway, under that there’s another smell, it’s earthy like vines growing.” You pictured a lavish snarl of vines, the fat kind. The kind Tarzan could swing on. They wound around your intestines and wove up your ribcage, to your lungs which were the texture of birthday cake. You pictured them thorny, defiant, flexible as snakes. You like that picture. “Let’s keep going so we’ll be home in time for dinner,” said Maybe-Sister, pulling out of the hug. “Ok.” You whistled for Ginger and hitched him to his leash. You headed for the inkwells, which were on the outskirts of the suburbs, where the lawns were scruffy as hitchhikers beards, and yards were protected by pit bulls instead of picket fences. You went past the self-storage lot. There were rows and rows and rows of boxes. In the afternoon light they were eerily half-lit and spotted with crow shit. Cul-de- sacs. Concrete. It was a lonely landscape. The three of you were a tight little tribe as you made your way through it. A butchy, low-voiced girl, an old dog who clung to his vigor, an enigma in a rabbit mask: you were the last outpost of weirdness in all the conformity. At the end of Sherman Drive you turned to an off spike of the road. You scrambled down the dusty path to the inkwells, deep cauldrons in the stone that water coursed through. Jocks came here to swim. You heard that this is where Cathy Tallarico got pregnant, but then again it was probably a rumor. Ginger catapulted into the water, then circled back to shake on you. If I can get her in the water, then she’ll have to take off the mask. An idea bubbled up in your mind. “I’ll go in if you do,” you said to her. Ginger nudged at her knees. The inkwell you were standing at was the largest, twenty feet across and twelve feet deep. “Come on,” you said. “Just take off that silly mask and let’s shank this together. Her voice stayed warm, but she shook her head.“Maybe I’ll shank it later,” she said. “But I’ll watch you.” You lead her up to an outcropping over the inkwell, and shed your shirt like a snake slithering out of its skin. Under it you were wearing a nylon sports bra ,which you didn’t need because your breasts were the size of plums. You squatted, swung your arms like pendulums, and launched off, cannonballing with a colossal splash. Underwater, your ears tingled in the dazzle of bubbles. The coolness of the water was a lovely shock, clenched the serpent of your spine. You back stroked to the shore. Maybe- Sister watched everything. Or watched something behind you. Late-afternoon amber honeycombed across the mesh in the mask’s eye sockets. The mask! If only she would take it off for a quick paddle. You clambered to shore, past Ginger who gave slobbery congratulations, and up the outcropping. Your wet capris swung heavily. “Nice cannonball,” said Maybe-Sister “You should try it.” “Hmm.” “Really. It’s epic.” “No thanks.” And that is when you pushed her. She flailed for a moment, then sliced into the water like a pine-needle. The ripples healed over before she came up for air. The only sounds were Ginger’s panting and crows’ gossip from the telephone wires. She broke the surface like an alarm pops the membrane of sleep. Maskless. You saw her nutmeg hair. It seemed to be plastered down her back. No, that was fur. Fur, blazing across her body. Her calves shot out into long sheaths of muscle. Her torso softened and lost it’s concave tautness. Her head pitched forward and her eyes drifted apart. Her fingers lodged into each other, and her ears-- An enormous hare reached the sandbank and scampered up. Ginger rocketed towards it barking and it froze. It looked at you for a moment with infinite oil-slick eyes. It blinked, and it’s lashes were were long as a drag queen’s. Then bounded off. Arthritic old Ginger quit the chase after a pant and a half. You started, but you couldn’t chase the hare. It disappeared into the undergrowth. Rustling bushes, then quiet. A single mary jane, pebbles studding the sole, bobbed to the shore. A woman’s size five and a half, patent leather. Tiny cream-colored bow, and knobby kitten heel. Dust clinging to the interior, but not a yellow sweat-stain anywhere. It smelled like milk and clean fur. Dejected, Ginger circled back to you. His tongue lolled as he stared into your face. You bent down and met him. Eye to eye. Creature to creature. “Was she there?” you asked. “Did we almost catch the big rabbit?” Ginger barked once in response. “She got away.” You could feel the bitterness percolate into your voice. “She fucking got away. Maybe it was us. Maybe we’re stinky and dumb. Or maybe she got tired of being the little girl Mom always wanted. Or maybe I never had a sister.” So many maybes. You corkscrewed your knuckles into your eyes. With your eyes closed, you had your own private lightshow. The sun was dropping low. Unlike her, you were going home. You treaded home, squelching in your soggy converse. Ginger was floppy and slow. At home you kicked off your shoes and sat down to dinner. Dad had made spaghetti. As Mom fussed over the mud you had tracked onto the carpet, you handed her the mary jane. She examined it casually, as if it was just a shoe. Not a compromise. Not an artifact. Not a peace offering. The table was set for three, just as it had been all along.
-- Elizabeth Wing is a high school junior with a collection of broken mechanical pencils and an obsession with Taxidermy. Her writings spur from the crux of the creepy and the delicate. She lives in California and worships the work of Gary Snyder.