I found my sister in a box in the woods on the ground. It was a wooden box, I think. With a long lid on hinges like a door and it was flung open. I wish I could remember more about it, or the place in the woods. I haven’t been able to find it since. In the dream I have about that day, I can’t see anything but her. Laying inside in her pretty blue and white dress with frills around the chest. She was slouched on her side, but still staring up into the sun and up at me. Her small black button eyes were wide and waiting. In the dream, I snatch her quickly, afraid the box will snap shut and bite off my hand.
My mother was fond of my sister the first time she saw her. She held her lightly before smiling and handing her back to me. The next day, she went into the attic to find an old white bonnet. She cleaned it in the bathroom sink. Years of yellow dust washed into the basin and stained the white walls of it for three weeks. She tied the bonnet around my sister’s head and tucked my hair behind my ears. Pretty girls.
That night we hid in the hall closet. We were curled under the winter jackets and the silence made her whisper. It was a sound like water that drips over the side of a pot when it is on the red hot stove. My grip slackened around her wrist. I blinked my eyes into the darkness. She whispered again and again until I heard words curl out of the hiss. “I am of your own mother.”
And so I named her sister. My mother told me not to call a doll that name, because it is not true and it makes her teeth hurt from clenching whenever she hears me whisper it. She said that I do not have a sister.
My sister lays next to me on my bed. I can’t sleep. The rat in the ceiling is skittering again. The running stops right above my feet, and I can hear him scratching a new hole. He scrapes in slow long scrapes. I pull my feet up from under the rat’s tiny claws, hugging my knees to my chest. I hate this rat. It feels like he is digging his holes into my head and skittering in my bones. My sister shifts next to me. A sort of rolling movement against my side. I pull her onto my chest, letting my legs back down. She lays on me heavy. She does not mind the rat in the ceiling. She laughs her crinkle laugh so it drowns out the scrapes. No rats in your bones. I can almost hear her say it. I close my eyes and squeeze my sister tighter onto my chest. My nails squeeze little lines into my palm. We fall asleep like this, scrunched up.
In the morning, we leave the house before I can eat breakfast. My mother brings me oatmeal in a small bowl and sits on the porch steps while I stand and eat. Her long calves are bristly and they have one mole near the knee. She asks me why I don’t eat inside. I say it’s because the house is too dark and heavy and it makes my belly ache. She says she wishes I liked the house. I give the bowl back to her and pick my sister off the ground, her puffy arms and legs hanging behind her. Will my sister have a breakfast? I ask. She says nothing. She stands up and lets the screen door bounce shut when she goes inside.
It’s not my fault I don’t like the house. It looks small from the outside and more small from the inside. It stinks like rot when the sun is high. It cowers. My parents always say they miss me when I come inside at night. They throw words under their breath which I pretend I do not hear but do, anyway. They don’t like it anymore than I do.
My sister and I go under a rose bush that grows by the mailbox. There’s a place to crawl that doesn’t get you caught on the thorns and we sit in a little pool of shaded light. I set my sister down on the ground and position her so it looks like she’s sitting. I poke her buttons for eyes. Does that hurt? I don’t say this, but she shakes her head no anyway. I get a fistful of hot, dry dirt from the ground. I let it drop slowly over her white legs. Over her bonnet. Her blue frilled dress. She likes this game. She laughs her crinkle laugh at it. How silly it is, to be in dirt. I drop my fistful and turn to crawl out of the dome in the rose bush. When I’m out, I turn around and reach inside to pull my sister out by her leg. She gets caught on something and I am tugging at her. I pull hard, angry that she won’t follow and she comes loose in an awful ripping sound.
I carry her in both arms like a fireman to my mother, who sits at the dining table with one leg crossed over the other. I put my sister on the table in front of her, eyes turned down at the floor. I can’t bring myself to look at the wound at the base of her arm. My eyes blur over it. My mother picks her up and tut tuts her tongue. She takes her to a small table by the chair in the living room and pulls thread and needles out of the drawer. I am eye level with my sister, and I can’t help but look at the wound. There is yellow stuffing frothing out of it. I feel angry at the stuffing. There should be something there instead. Something like the blood that’s in me. The stuff that lets you talk words.
That night, we don’t go to sleep. I stand in the dark by the door, pressing my ear to it. My parents are yelling downstairs. I open the door and we slink to the banister. I can see the outline of their bodies in the kitchen from here. I squat down and rest my head between two bars.
They tap their knuckles against the wooden walls in quick little beats and ‘tsk’ at the hollow sound of it. They talk about how they hate our little house. That the walls are too small and the ceiling leaked in the garage which grew mold which weakened wood which is going to make the house fall down. They yell at the house while facing each other.
It quiets down enough for my sister and I to hear my mother whisper that they always wanted a bigger family anyway. They close cabinets and books and newspapers and go to bed in silence after this. My sister gets warm in my arms when she hears them and it turns my skin red like a sunburn. We walk back to my room and climb in bed. I fall asleep like usual with my sister pressed into my back.
I wake up hot, breathing hard. I throw my blankets off me and look around the still, black room. My sister is not on the bed with me. I look over the sides in case she fell down and I can pull her up and I can hold her and sleep. But she is not on the floor. I get out of bed without turning the light on. There is a buzzing feeling at the back of my neck like an old bee sting. I walk out onto the landing. There is a light on in the living room. I walk down the stairs, the feeling in my neck turning to a hum sound. When I turn the corner and see them there, the sound stops all at once. There is my sister, asleep on the couch. But my mother is there too, sleeping next to her. Curled around her. They look calm together there. My mother looks like a child, curled like that. I press my body back against the wall and my throat fills up with a loudness. I do not like my mother looking like a child.
In the morning, I feel my sister back in bed with me. I do not turn to face her. My father is home today. We eat breakfast at the table together. He is worried that a storm is going to come but my mother disagrees. It is getting colder in the house.
After breakfast my mother calls me outside. On the porch, she is holding my sister in one hand. She tells me I shouldn’t leave her outside. She found her in the dirt. She asks me why I left her outside and I tear my sister out of her hand and run back into the house. I will not let go of her now. I will not let her hold her like that again.
At midday my father finds mold in my bedroom. It is creeping into the corners, black. He asks me how long it’s been there and I tell him the rat must have scraped it there. He says I need to sleep in their room now. I watch him pull my mattress down the stairs. I watch the blankets slip off it as he pulls.
The house gets colder when the sun starts setting. We cannot light a fire in our fireplace because the chimney is clogged with something and the smoke will not go out it will just fill up the house. My mother leaves the oven on to warm us. She opens it up and tells me not to go close to it. I scrunch my nose and mouth and eyes at her.
My parents put my mattress on the floor by their bed, made up like it is not on the floor. I don’t want to sleep there but they say that if I don’t, the mold will get into my corners too. Before we go to sleep, I find my sister laying by the oven. She is hot when I pick her up. She gets hotter as I walk with her to the room, so hot I have to drop her in the doorway, my hands red burning. I do not know why she wont let me hold her and I get in bed scrunching up my face at her. I lay there, staring at her leaned against the doorframe. She is getting red burning too. Her heat emits no light but I fall asleep with it in my eyes.
I wake up in the middle of the night. There is a smell seeping all through the house. It is a small and shivering smell, like dead grass. I wake up not to the smell of it but to the sound my sister is making. She is cooing to me like a dove, like a water fountain. I stare up straight into a red glow coming through the lines in the ceiling. The smell fills me up violently and I start coughing. There is a sound like rustling claws and I can hear a million rats run through the walls. But it is not rats. It is the lick of fire.
I wake my parents up by pulling their quilt off their bodies and shaking them hard. They start coughing too. They get up before they realize what they are doing and then the house all around the bedroom collapses. It’s so loud. The smoke and the coughing and the fire. All the walls are trembling except for the door. The door is standing strong and still because my sister is leaning on it, willing it to stay up. I point to her and my father picks me up, grabs my mother by the hand and runs out the door, past my sister.
They do not stop when I start screaming for her, and as soon as we pass through the doorway it falls in on itself, crushing her underneath. I scratch at my father’s arm and try to kick at his belly but he will not let me go. We run over a black floor and my mother pulls us to the right where the wall has fallen in. The whole world is orange and bright. I lock eyes with the flames. They look at me the same way my sister did. My eyes grow hot and stinging before I have to close them.
We run out onto cool night grass, which is lit up by the fire so the green and the red make a purple color. We stand here watching our little house burn before trucks with wails come down our street. My father does not let go of me the whole time. I let myself go slack against his chest.
The fire goes out. Our yard fills with people in big masks and people from the houses near us. My father sets me down to talk to the people and I slip away. I walk over the grass which is black without the light to turn it purple. I try to feel that hum in the back of my neck like the night she was taken away from me, but I do not feel anything. But on the very edge of the ash, which is still breathing heat out at me, there is a lump of brilliant color.
My sister was not burned, or even singed. Her bonnet is still tied around her head and her eyes are still looking out. The soot is not hot around her, and I am able to get my hand under her just fine. But when I lift her up, her body is deflated. Her head falls back into the soot and I can see the thread all around her coming loose. As I lift her further, the thread falls out and pools into the ash underneath. I press gently on her belly to hear the crinkle in it and there it is. The sound that kept the rats out of my bones. But I can feel it now. A solid thing just under the fabric. I pull away the last of what was holding her together and search through the stuffing until I find the sound. I take out a crumpled up piece of paper. It looks like deep fissures run through it. Fissures like if you fell into them you would fall to the center of the earth. It looks like the pit of a peach that you bury in the ground in the woods and check the spot each spring for a new tree. It looks like my own fist, balled up and scared to unfurl.
I pick at the corners of it to pull it open and lay it flat out on my palm. It’s a photograph. Not too old but still faded from the crinkled state it was in. In the picture are my mother and father. My father has longer hair and scruffle on his face. He is wearing a large, buttoned shirt that falls untucked. My mother is smiling into many freckles, and wears her dark hair up in a bun sliding off the top of her head. They are standing close together. Close enough so they can both hold the child in their arms. The child in the picture is young. She cannot walk yet. She is in a little blue and white dress with frills around the chest and her belly is round and she is smiling. She has a white bonnet tied around her little head.
I leave the picture in the soot with the unraveled doll and walk back over to my parents. I put my hand on my mother and I say, “Mother” in a voice so small I am surprised she hears me. I am not sure I even know the words I’m speaking. But she turns her head toward me. I say, “A long time ago, did you bury something in the ground?” And she does not answer me. Her face is tired and dark with ash. She gives me a long, long stare with a whole ocean in it. A whole ocean in her stare, breaking on the ground in her chest and pushing sand into her throat and her eyes are the deepest dark blue. The heaviness of being a million miles underwater. She does not say anything. But I also feel the deep water in my body. She gives the ocean to me and I feel the crashing waves say that, yes, she did bury something in the ground, but she did not want to. So it came back.
Olivia Loorz (she/they) is a current MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she works as a designer and teaching assistant for the Publishing Laboratory. They received their BA in Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz. They can be found on Twitter at @oloorz and by email at email@example.com.