May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
October 4, 2018
My older sister Kat kept her hands up for two full songs at church last Sunday. Her pinky and ring fingers held the long sleeves of her flannel shirt over her wrists, and she swayed in time with the music. Jeremiah was there, in the shadowy corner of the stage, forced to play bass instead of lead guitar. Kat kept her eyes closed until the fast songs were over and the pastor asked for our offering. I left a ten in the bucket and passed it over her hands, now folded in her lap. She stared at the empty cross behind the pulpit as though Jesus might reappear on it the same way he got off, dragged down the aisle while mothers watched.
Our dad fell for my mom in the middle of divorcing Kat’s. They all pretended this was ordinary, even while Marina, Kat’s mother, was visibly pregnant with a baby made during divorce sex, even when my mother found out she was pregnant with me, even while she married him. And so Kat and I grew up in tandem, both of our mothers too stubborn to leave Maui or even their church, insistent that mutual friends didn’t need to pick sides, and half-convinced that they had no choice but to stay. Our mothers wanted us to spend holidays together; they tried to make it seem normal. At Thanksgiving, Kat and I would sit next to each other and listen to the adults taking bets on us:
“Ali’s going to be a doctor; she’s just so smart.”
“Actually, Katheryn just made the honor roll—is there any more stuffing?—it looks like that tutoring paid off.”
“Alicia’s never needed tutoring.”
By the time I was seven, we knew which of our neighbors would feed us Thanksgiving mochi and kalua pig until our parents were satisfied with their comparisons.
We didn’t know things could be different until the night one of the moms took my favorite photo of us. I remember the rhythm of our dad’s hospital monitors and the muffled sound of our mothers arguing outside about whether they could be friends after the father of their daughters died, and then I remember how Kat and I fell asleep on the couch. In the photo, we are both wearing hoodies, our heads almost touching, and we are holding hands. The dark window behind us could be anywhere; the linoleum floor below us and the nurses are out of frame. In the picture, you can’t tell that I am younger than she is, that we aren’t full sisters. You can’t hear our moms crying outside, forgiving each other for him, for having his daughters, for the way we both have his green eyes, for bringing us to watch our father die. When we woke up, the two of them loved us both, to fill the space our dad was going to leave behind. The four of us watched him until the beeping stopped.
I couldn’t get the photo out of my head when Leiana and I drove to Kat’s on the night she was hospitalized. When I was twelve, Kat told me that I needed to pack her hospital bag if she ever needed one. She said it matter-of-factly, the same way she’d say something like, “If you ever start your period and run out of tampons, there’s a spare box hidden behind the beach towels in my bathroom.” Kat thought I knew her well, better than Leiana, who knew her well enough to believe me when I said the bag was my job. She had to trust me—Kat hadn’t left a note.
Kat’s neighborhood was quiet, the trade winds absent. As she drove, Leiana texted her boyfriend below the steering wheel, the phone lighting up her face and the tear trail she didn’t bother wiping away. She couldn’t look at me when she told me what Kat had done.
“Don’t go in the bathroom,” she said. I nodded and slammed the car door behind me, trying not to understand too well.
Kat and Marina didn’t keep a spare key outside, so I took out the kitchen window screen, kicking my shoes off onto the grass. I ran past the bathroom with its bloody tiles and the soaking towels thrown in the tub, not stepping in the dark spots on the carpet. I emptied Kat’s school backpack onto her bed and then stuffed it with Kat’s necessities—shoes, T-shirt, wallet, pants, sweats, her new iPod, the good headphones with the little rubber pandas on the sides.
Leiana was already shifting gears by the time I grabbed for my seatbelt.
“Shit,” I said.
Leiana’s eyebrows raised; she’d never heard me cuss before. “It’s all shit. Kat’s gonna need you.”
“It’s not fair.”
“Don’t even try telling me you never thought this’d happen.”
She didn’t know—and Kat didn’t know—I was on the church balcony when Kat stopped Jeremiah’s father, our deacon, in the sanctuary. She didn’t know that I heard him when he asked if there was a baby, that I bit my tongue when she said no, that I heard his hand fall on her shoulder, that I heard when he prayed over her, saying that babies “weren’t the point,” that something still happened.
“You want me to say it?” I asked.
Leiana tied her hair into a loose bun, the kind she wore when she was ready for a fight.
“That haole bastard.”
We hit all green lights until the street below the high school.
Kat started telling me what to do in an emergency the same year we lived through our first tsunami warning. Our families stayed with Leiana’s parents on the ridge, and us kids ate s’mores and watched the news until an hour before dawn while our parents prayed with their home group over the phone. Leiana’s dad busted one of the neighbor boys for smoking weed out back. When the sun rose, our mothers bought doughnuts and smiled to each other about how the prayer shield had once again protected all of us.
“Did she ever tell you about him?” Leiana asked.
I shrugged. We wouldn’t explain Kat to each other.
The shore was only a few yards away from the road, and Leiana didn’t drive to music, so we listened to the waves crashing like horses on the rocks.
“It’s a full moon,” Leiana said. The water was silvery black beneath the glowing whitewash when the waves formed.
I watched a girl night-surfing. In the moonlight, her red hair looked like blood running down her back. The ocean smells stronger at low tide, when waves are the best. I rolled up my window.
The first time Kat came home late from youth group, I spent the night at her house. I wasn’t old enough to go, so Marina made me dinner, and we watched a movie Kat wouldn’t like. Kat had gone with the rest of the youth group to the McDonald’s at the bottom of the road. She got in her first fistfight that night, one of several over the next few years.
“When you hit junior high, keep your head down,” she said, cuddling against me. Her breath smelled like blood and toothpaste.
I knew being a full haole could get you into a fight if you had a big enough mouth. I was lucky, and Kat wasn’t; my mom was Korean, and I had the safety that comes with being hapa. Kat informed me that the youth leader who saw the fight wouldn’t tell the youth pastor if she did him a favor. Pastors didn’t want to know about fights—they liked to think they were watching over sheep. They were guarding a safe place, somewhere familiar that always smelled like itself, like carpet in the early stages of decay and rubber and bleach and candle smoke.
Kat was fourteen when we started liking our dad again—or our memories of him. He picked out our shoes, our mothers, our haircuts, our everything, and we were old enough to know that he wouldn’t have chosen to die. When his ashes were scattered, both of us closed our eyes, hoping the other would see them swirl in the wind and fall on the sea. To make up for missing that moment, we carved our dad’s life dates into the salt-softened wood on the blocked-off pier, just south of the Cannery Mall.
That was two years ago, on a Thursday, and neither of us took a picture while we did it. I wrote down all the important dates on a sticky note and met Kat at the pier after school. I held Kat’s left hand while she swung under the boards and started carving on the underside with a kitchen knife. Her eyes showed through the gaps in the wood, and we could feel the strain in each other’s hands. Her feet were pressed against the pylons, not touching the whitewash spinning beneath. When waves came, she would pause her work to pull herself higher. In the end, we had to switch, and I carved a crooked cross next to the dates. We rode the bus home, covered in sweat and the smell of seaweed. My forearms and shoulders hurt for days.
Leiana pulled up to the emergency room entrance, and I leapt out at a run. The harsh florescent lights hit me first, followed by the musk of bleach and piss. I showed my learner’s permit to the uncaffeinated receptionist at the desk. The walk through the hallway was shorter than I remembered, and the hallway itself seemed wider when I was a child doing sock slides outside the oncologist’s office.
Marina was waiting for me. She pulled me aside and introduced me to a doctor with tattoos that peeked out of his white coat. The tattooed doctor told me the hospital was short on the rarer blood types.
“I’m not a match, Alicia,” Marina said, and I hugged her as tight as I could while the doctor asked her for permission to check my medical history. I remembered then that Marina was my other legal guardian, that she could sign forms.
“If there’s anything I can do, I will,” I said. Marina stroked my hair, her hand running down the backpack I was still wearing.
They finally opened the door, and I don’t know what I expected. I just didn’t expect Kat to be asleep, and I wasn’t prepared for the thickness of the bandages around her wrists or the way they’d restrained her.
“Is she sedated?” I asked the nurse who was fussing with her IV.
She nodded. I wanted to undo the restraints, but I sat on my hands instead. The heart monitor sounded like childhood, but I didn’t say so to Leiana when she finally came in.
Hours passed. The doctor compared Kat’s history to mine and marveled at how Kat and I looked so little alike.
“It’s in their eyes,” Leiana said. She was probably right.
Marina called my mom outside Kat’s room, and I held onto the backpack; I didn’t need to hear them. Leiana braided my hair into pigtails and raked them out again with her fingers until one thirty, when she finally went home. There was school in the morning and nothing else she could do. Marina paced outside, leaving voicemails for what sounded like everyone she’d ever met.
“Secrets are your money, Ali. Don’t go broke,” Kat had said after youth group a few months before. We were at my house, but I’d gone back in a car that skipped McDonald’s, and she’d ridden in Jeremiah’s.
“What’re you talking about?” I asked. Kat holds long thoughts in her mind and sometimes gives just the last snippet, forgetting that no one else can pull the thread.
She didn’t respond right away. I sat cross-legged on the edge of the bed, looking down at her on the thin mat on my floor.
“The more you have, the less you have—the less you’ll always have,” she mumbled and then wouldn’t say more.
She didn’t know I was still awake when she started crying, her fingernails scratching the carpet and leaving little trenches for me to find in the morning. She pretended not to see me with my hand in her handprint, trying and failing to fill the space. I was poorer than I’d ever been.
I wasn’t surprised that Kat didn’t return my texts for a while. My mom told me that Kat called when I was out, as though Kat didn’t have my cell number. I didn’t see her at youth group anymore, and on Sundays, she sat in the back, alone. For once, I didn’t know if I was supposed to do anything besides wait and listen, until I was on the balcony above her and the deacon.
My secret was that I became a real believer, as real as you can be at just-turned-fifteen. Kat missed my baptism; she was car shopping. She didn’t hear Jeremiah clap my shoulder too hard and say, “If my guitar gets wet I might just kill you.” She didn’t hear him playing acoustic guitar in the sand while the pastor and his oldest son prayed in the shore break. She didn’t see me go under the water and didn’t feel the brief moment of weight from our pastor’s too-heavy hands on my chest, didn’t feel the low wave wash over me and wash away my sins, didn’t see me burst through the sea and squint at the sun like it was the first time I’d seen it. When I sent her a photo of me wrapped in an old beach towel, still in my wet clothes, she sent me a picture of a twenty-year-old Ford sedan. Almost a month later, Kat started talking to me again.
“He did things, Ali,” she said.
Kat was reading a novel she’d pulled from my shelf at random while we listened to Jeremiah’s first single. He played every instrument on it, practicing for hours in the church sanctuary. I’d listened to him play that song a hundred times, maybe more. I found out years later that he made the song seem harder than it was, more complicated. As much as he moved his hands up and down the neck, the song only had four chords, with a simple strum and lots of delay.
“For two years. I never learned to see it coming. I always thought it was over. I was always wrong. He didn’t . . . take anything . . . from me. But he said he would. And he came close.”
My hands were shaking; my soul was shaking. She didn’t glance up when I sat next to her and waited for some kind of revelation, something to say, some defense. She was too pale, white enough that she looked cold, even though beads of sweat were rolling down my back beneath my bra strap. Her hands shook against the pages of the novel. I sat there until she left, walking back to her house without saying goodbye. I dug trenches in my carpet for hours with my fingernails until I had nothing left to cry about.
Kat and I both woke up around dawn. I knelt next to the bed even though I know what lives on hospital floors. Kat rubbed her index finger and thumb together, knitting one of those long thoughts. I didn’t want to say anything. Finally, she asked to see the backpack. I opened it, lifting each object for her to inspect.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
I remembered what it was like when we were children, and the whole world seemed like it was going to be safe. Hospital quiet is hard to break.
She asked me to take out her wallet. Behind her driver’s license, she’d hidden a torn-out page of a Bible, the first page of Genesis, burned at the edges.
“I found it in the Field after the first time it happened, back when I was in junior high. Before they built the apartments.”
I nodded. Back then, stranger things than that could be found in the Field behind the high school. Our church had met at the school before we finished our building, and I had learned that God lives in the echoes off the cafeteria walls and the smell of sweat.
“Read it,” she said, and I read until the page cut off in the middle of the second sentence under the heading that reads: The Fall. The nurse added a second IV, one for the first blood transfusion, hanging one of the small bags on a hook. Kat didn’t watch the needle go in her arm, but a minute later, when I rolled up my sleeve, she watched the needle go in mine. I filled a half-pint bag long before the time was up, before she started knitting her fingers. I rested my other hand on Kat’s until it warmed and the sun finished its rising. I could feel her heartbeat in the swelling veins.
And the glory of God filled the temple.
Heidi Turner is a fiction and nonfiction writer, poet, and musician from Maui, Hawaii. Her work has been published in Cirque, Gravel, Linden Avenue, and the Adirondack Review, and others. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram (@hi_dturner) and through her website, www.hidturner.com.