I receive word of my sister on a Wednesday morning in early May. My son Noah is out of school that day for teacher in-services; I’ve taken time off work to be with him at home. I’m making soup and sandwiches for us both when the call comes in–I take it over the kitchen speakers, assuming it to be work-related. “This is Kim.”
“Hi there.” The speaker is a woman, with a sunny voice and a hint of a Southern accent. “This is Judi with Puget Sound Oncology. Would I be speaking with Kimiko Fukada?”
I pause before replying–a phone call from a strange business entity, without video. Not an email, certainly not text or subvoc. I shift into a more formal register. “This is Kim speaking; how can I help you?”
“Great.” A few verification questions follow. “And our records show you as the surviving next-of-kin for one Noriko Fukada?”
I pause over the tomato I’m slicing. I recall a series of letters, dry official notices from the hospital. I started receiving them after our mother died, about eight or nine years back; after the first two or three, I simply threw them away. Now I set down the kitchen knife, slide the kitchen door closed with a gesture. “I’m sorry, what is this regarding?”
My sister is awake. I subvoc my ex-husband Troy, convince him to take our son out to his soccer game. Troy works from home, and so readily agrees. He asks me what’s come up, and I tell him the truth. He doesn’t reply right away. Somewhere in the back of my skull I can feel him composing his reply. Deleting, then recomposing. Do whatever you need to, he says. I hope it goes okay. I expect you two have a lot to talk about.
My sister is awake. This thought repeats itself on my drive into downtown Seattle. My sister is awake. Literally years now gone. Our parents are dead and what will I say? Will she even recognize me? Shock gives way to ragged breathing, to numbness in my cheeks, my hands. Eventually the panic rises up and I have to set the autopilot, let the car drive the rest of the way. I lean back and look out the window as we cross over the Fremont Canal. High-rises crowd in stacks along the water’s edge.
At the hospital, after what must be an hour of filling out release forms and nondisclosure agreements, I find myself in a crowded hospital room with a corner view of Puget Sound. Also present are a doctor, a pair of med students recording, and a hatchet-faced femme in a dark gray suit. Meanwhile in bed is my big sister Nori, twenty-five years old and the same as she ever was. She sits upright in bed, her skin waxen, her cheeks gaunt. Her dark hair is thin and brittle, and the right side of her head is buzzed to reveal a gruesome, bright-pink surgical scar. She watches us with the wary eyes of a shelter animal, regards me with caution but doesn’t appear to recognize me. The doctor introduces both himself and the femme, but neither the students nor myself. I have been asked to avoid speaking. The doctor smiles and asks Nori, “How are you feeling?”
“Where’s Dr. Cospoole?”
He smiles. “Enjoying his retirement, as I understand. Lots of sailing, I’m told.” He wears a sweater vest under his coat and has receding brown hair, with playful eyes and a fatherly grin. “How are you feeling?”
Nori thinks a moment. Rival emotions play out across her face. “I’m… okay, I guess. The nausea’s mostly wearing off.”
“You’ve responded well,” he says. “There’ll be at least two more rounds of treatment, but if the results we’re seeing hold, we could be fast-tracked for FDA approval inside of two years.”
“I don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Ms. Fukada, what is the last thing that you remember?”
Nori thinks a moment. “My sister’s basketball game.” She would be referring to my sophomore year of high school, junior-varsity. I can remember that day as if I were still there. “I had an aura,” she says. She’s referring to the visual phenomena that came to precede her seizures, after the cancer had spread to her brain. “I had another one. Oh god, I had another one, I’m so sorry.”
“Everything’s fine,” says the doctor. “I promise.” He offers to tell her a story.
He speaks then of her cancer–his language candid, his tone cuttingly frank. The onset of Nori’s symptoms, the path that the illness took, month-by-month, as it tore through her body like fire through the compartments of a ship. He uses phrases like progression of symptoms and pathology tables by age group and suddenly I’m a teenager again, listening to my mother try to explain my sister’s latest round of test results. I still remember those final months, watching my sister sink beneath the waves. Nori meanwhile listens, regards the doctor and the hatchet-faced femme. Several times she glances over at me–she is drawn to something in my features, but cannot yet place me. “Given your unique case,” says the doctor, “and the time-sensitive nature of your condition, the hospital board elected by emergency vote to intervene in your care and retain you for further study.”
“Intervene?” she asks. “I don’t understand. I have a living will. I have a DNR/E.”
“The hospital argued superseding medical interest,” says the hatchet-faced femme, “and was awarded an injunction.” They keep their blonde hair slicked back, wear a shade of indigo lipstick that matches their tie. I suppose I should have expected this, that even now the hospital would work first to secure its own interests. When I was a grieving teenage girl, all I could see was the act of corporate charity, the vague hope that my sister might one day have another chance at life. Now I understand a little better.
“You’ve been unconscious for a time,” says the doctor, “but I do need to stress here that a corner’s been turned. Your prognosis going forward is extremely encouraging.”
“You mean like in a coma?”
“Not a coma,” says the doctor. “In stasis. Do you understand what that means?”
Nori blinks. She regards the backs of her own hands, unlined by age, and frowns. Slowly, I can watch as the picture comes together. “You froze me.”
“Well, strictly speaking, the term frozen is a bit of an oversimplification–”
“What the fuck,” says Nori, “I didn’t give you permission to do that. What the hell kind of doctors are you?”
“The same that saved your life,” says the hatchet-faced femme, “And who now continue to absorb the costs of your ongoing treatment.”
“If I may,” says the doctor. “At the time of your retention, you were already in cardiac arrest. Had we not intervened, you would have died and simply been reduced to another statistic. But we did intervene, and now here we are. I need you to take a moment and appreciate just how historic all this is–what we’ve learned here will completely change the nature of modern cancer research. Medical textbooks will have whole chapters on you; years from now, your name will come up in the same breath as Henrietta Lacks or Maria Navarro. Heroes, saviors of modern science.”
“You mean test subjects used without their consent.”
The hatchet-faced femme smiles. “A terribly cynical interpretation.”
“Returning to the point,” says the doctor. “There are entire wikis now cataloguing diseases we’ve wiped from the earth–polio, smallpox, ebola. HIV. Now this?” His manner softens. “What we’ve achieved here with you will save literally millions of lives. And you are only the beginning. I understand what you must be feeling right now, but please, try to consider the opportunity we have been given here. That you have been given here.” He is very good, I will give him that much. I’m reminded of the old talks given by Silicon Valley venture capitalists, in the early part of the century. The same high-mindedness, the lofty talk of disruption and changing the world. I’m sure he even believes it. I can only imagine the hospital advertising brochures that will arise from this.
What do I say?
My sister glares back at the doctor and his overseer. When she does at last speak, it is very quiet. “How long?” she asks.
“Ms. Fukada, please understand, at the time of your illness, the medical science that we had available was simply not–”
“You said I was out,” she says. “Answer me. For how long?”
The doctor’s smile fades. He looks down at the backs of his hands. “Nineteen years, six months, and twenty-two days.”
Silence. Behind my sister’s eyes, a set of new and awful realizations are clicking into place. “Where are my parents?” she asks. “Where’s my sister?”
“I’m here,” I say. A single crack in the porcelain of my resolve, and my vision goes hot and blurry. I am surprised at how small my voice sounds. I cannot stop myself from smiling. “I’m right here.”
Nori looks at me. Her eyes go wide, and here at last is recognition. Something tenses in her jaw, and I realize then that she is shaking. “All of you get out.”
“This has been a lot to process,” says the doctor. “We can pick this up later.”
“I said get out!” The room quickly empties after that. I attempt to approach Nori’s bedside, but am intercepted by the hatchet-faced femme. “Thank you for coming,” they say. “We will be in touch to discuss custodial paperwork and conditions for discharge.”
Out in the hallway, I take a moment to compose myself. I can still hear Nori sobbing behind the closed door to her room. I subvoc Troy and tell him that I’m finally leaving, and on the way out, I pass both the doctor and the hatchet-faced femme. They appear to be having some quiet but urgent discussion. The doctor sees me and falls silent mid-sentence. The femme watches me go, with raptorine gaze.
By the time I leave the hospital and make it through the afternoon traffic, Noah’s soccer game is nearly over. I find Troy amongst the other parents gathered on the sidelines. Try as we might to encrypt the things that we are feeling, a trained eye will always spot the vulnerabilities. He pulls me into a hug as I walk up, and though there have been no feelings between us for years, I am grateful. “Hey,” he says. “Hey. You’re alright.”
The drive home with Noah is mostly quiet. I focus on the road, attempt idle small talk. His answers are brief and addressed to his cleats. Halfway home he asks me, “Are you all right?”
I glance back at him in the rearview mirror. “You never told me how things were at your dad’s.”
“They were fine,” he says. “You’ve been stressed out all day. Because of Aunt Nori.”
“I see your father has been talking again.”
“It was what the phone call was about,” he says, “I heard you talking on speakerphone.”
“What have we have talked about before with you eavesdropping?”
“You’re not happy,” he says. “I don’t understand. Good news is supposed to make you happy.”
After dinner that night, we lay together on the couch and stream Finding Nemo. We do not discuss my sister, or indeed speak at all. Eventually he falls asleep on my shoulder, and I carry him, as though he were a baby, back to his own bed. For some time, I linger in his doorway in the dark, listening to him breathe. What no one ever told me about parenting was how such small moments could comfort, and yet hurt so much.
Later I pour myself a glass of bourbon, nurse it as I stare out the window across the city. The skyscrapers are spaced out like so many candles, and it makes me think of Nori’s vigil. So many years ago now. I put back the rest of my drink, feel it warming as it settles in my chest. In my work I have attended thousands of funerals, across a multitude of traditions. What should one more be amongst so many? I set down my glass, focus on the constellations of the distant skyline. Soon I realize that I am drunk. So be it. I am allowed to be drunk for once.
The following afternoon I return to the hospital, where I am informed by the desk nurse that Nori has been transferred to another unit. For several moments, I simply stand there at the counter, expectant. When it becomes clear that no further response is forthcoming, I ask and am referred to someone more familiar with her case. What follows is a tense and escalating discussion.
“I don’t understand,” I say. “What exactly does that mean, transferred? What other unit, specifically?”
“I’ve already explained this, ma’am,” says the nurse. “I can only tell you what I see. The rest of the notes on her file are restricted.”
“Restricted, how?” I ask. “The hospital designated me power of attorney. I’m her sister. I have the right to access that information.”
“I’m afraid the law doesn’t work that way in this instance, ma’am.”
“Give me your supervisor.”
“I am the nurse supervisor on duty for this unit.” She is stout and diminutive, with massive black hair lashed back into a bun. She looks perpetually tired, in that way common to nurses and new mothers. “Ma’am, with all due respect, I understand how frustrating this is. Believe me, if I could give you more information, I would. But her file is restricted.
“Meanwhile–” she points to the screen behind her–“these names? The patients listed on my board? They’re the ones I’m paid to concern myself with. Now is there anything else I can do for you?”
I swallow hard. I will not resort to shouting, will not break down crying here in the reception area, though I am certainly angry enough to do both. “That’ll be all,” I tell her. “Thank you.”
“When her status changes,” the nurse supervisor says, “the hospital will notify you. The elevators are around the corner to your left.”
In the days that follow, I pace around my condo in a limbo of dread and angst. Where is my sister, I wonder? Why did they take her from me again? It seems that for most of my adult life, I’ve been a state of suspended mourning. She is not truly dead, I have been told, and so I am forever without closure. So it is again.
I try to keep myself busy with work. I attend two clients’ funerals, one Episcopal and one Jainist. I take on three new commissions to curate clients’ personal archives after their deaths. I receive an invite to speak on a panel at a conference; the subject is said to be population shifts and data-migration over the last half-century. That weekend, Noah goes to his father’s, and I spend as much time at the office as I can. There is always work to do, maintaining the personal records of the dead. For the living there is only anxiety, and dread, and waiting.
It is nearly a week before the hospital finally calls back–not Oncology, this time, but rather Behavioral Health. Nori has had a self-harm incident, I am advised, and she is finally well enough to receive visitors. The call comes in the middle of a work consultation–I end the call quickly and reschedule with my client, to some considerable objection. On the way out, I swing through the old piroshky shop just off of Pike Place Market, then hurry the three blocks to my car with purchase in hand.
I follow the instructions given to me by the information kiosk. Nori is being housed, I am told, in the hospital’s inpatient psychiatric wing. I take the elevators and present my visitor’s badge at the intake desk; I find my sister seated at a table, at the far end of a large common area. She holds a book in her right hand, while the left one is encased in a heavy brace. She looks up from her reading as I enter, holds my gaze as I draw near. I move slowly, as if approaching a wild deer. I realize then that I have never seen a deer outside of photographs. My sister says nothing as I sit down across from her. I point to her wrist, to the cut glued closed above her left eye. “What happened there?”
“Apparently windows have to be shatterproof now.” Her manner is sullen and embarrassed. “Typhoon-resistant, something, I dunno. Stop laughing.”
“Forgive me,” I say. I can only imagine my sister curled up on the floor, clutching her head and hissing with pain, an attempt at a grand final gesture reduced to mere slapstick. I realize of course that I’m being unkind, so I opt instead to try and smooth things over. I pull out the bag containing our piroshkies, unwrap my own and slide hers across the table. Her eyes go wide.
“I did,” I say. “Grilled tofu and cheese. I hope that was alright.”
“They didn’t have the salmon?”
“No more salmon.” She looks at me strangely. She takes a bite of her pastry, wipes crumbs off her lower lip.
“So,” I say.
“So.” She studies me for a long moment, searching my face. After a long moment she finally says, “You don’t look the way I thought you would. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just not what I expected. I don’t know what I expected.”
“We rarely do.”
“The short hair looks good though.”
“Thank you,” I say. “You look…” My words trail off, and she waits for me to finish.
“Like you never left us.” I find it suddenly difficult to breathe. I focus instead on our surroundings–a pair of old men playing chess; a few other patients watching a movie. Over in the corner, a few of the younger ones are holding some sort of writing workshop. “It’s a nice setup they’ve got here, at least.”
“Yeah,” says Nori. “I was expecting straightjackets and drugged-up stares, but the people here are pretty normal. For the most part.”
“We expect mental anguish to look a certain way.” I think then of my own years spent in and out of therapy. “We find ourselves surprised when it turns out to wear a face that we know. Rational people make irrational decisions every day.”
“I wasn’t being irrational,” she says. “I know what you’re thinking, and I’m not crazy.”
“It isn’t a matter of being crazy. But you’ve also been through a traumatic event. It’s not unreasonable to assume that you might experience some difficulty coming to terms.”
“Who said anything about a traumatic event?”
“It is my job,” I tell her, “to understand traumatic events.”
The rest of our visit is spent playing catch-up. I explain what has happened in Nori’s absence, both in our own sphere and in the world at large. This turns out to be not as strange a conversation as one might expect–had it been forty years, rather than twenty, it might be very different, but for the most part, Nori absorbs what I say without visible shock or dismay. Recent elections raise some eyebrows. “And what about you?” she asks. “Married, any kids?”
“Divorced,” I say. “We have a boy, he’s nine now. Noah. He looks a lot like you, I think.” She smiles. I had forgotten what a lovely smile she had.
“And what do you do now?”
“I’m an archivist.” I explain then about the nature of my job, a kind of mortician for the age of social-media. “Everyone leaves behind a life,” I say. “I take that life and shape it into a statement.”
Nori stares. “And, that’s just a thing now, I guess?”
“A very lucrative thing, if one is any good at it.”
“A touch morbid, don’t you think?”
“As a matter of fact, I do not.” The force of my own response surprises me. “Forgive me. I’m simply very proud of what I do, the ways in which I help people. I don’t find it to be morbid at all.”
“Look, I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” I say. “Though I do have a question, if I might.”
“I have to ask. About why you did it? I’m sure you understand.”
Silence. She looks around the room, then down at her feet. “It was stupid,” she says. “An impulse decision. I realized what had been done to me and I got scared. I wanted out.”
“If they let you out of here, will you try to do it again?”
“No. Absolutely not.”
“Good,” I say. “I spent years wishing to have you back. I don’t want to ever lose you again.”
“You haven’t already?”
“That wasn’t my doing,” I say. “I tried to find you, but they’d restricted your file.”
“You know what I mean,” she says. “We might as well be different people now. Strangers.”
“Do you want to be?”
“I don’t think so, no.” She changes the subject. “Listen, I need you to do me a favor.”
“I’m not stupid,” she says. “I could put it together from the way the staff all try to hide things from me. But when they woke me up, and you were the only one who showed? I need to know about Mom and Dad. I need you to tell me the truth.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. I’ve been dreading this conversation for over a week now. “You meant everything to them. To all of us.”
Nori nods. I can see her trying very her hardest. “I need some time, I think. Just for a little bit.”
“Promise me you’ll visit. I don’t want to be in this alone. I can’t be in this alone.”
“I won’t let you be.” When the silence at last becomes too much I get up from my chair, turn and make my way for the exit. It is only as I reach the elevators that I realize we never embraced, or said that we loved each other.
I keep my promise. I visit twice a week over the next several weeks. Nori is eventually taken off watch, transferred out of Behavioral, back to Oncology and then out to Physical Therapy. During one of our visits I’m sent home with a packet–it includes a discharge checklist, timeframes, specific things that Nori will need. Top-to-bottom physical, updated driver’s license and passport, collection of belongings from storage. There are printouts for a series of job fairs, as well as a listing of crisis lines and emergency shelters, but otherwise no mention of housing or employment.
One night I’m helping Noah out with his math homework. He has always struggled with fractions. He slouches over his tablet, face buried in his hands, and I remind him, “That finger could be busy writing things out.”
“There’s nothing to write,” he says. “My brain is a complete blank.”
“Tabula rasa,” I correct him. “Reduce it down. Two-fifty over four hundred. What’s a number that goes into both?”
“I told you, I don’t know. I’m not like you. I can’t just magically be good with numbers.”
“No one is ever magically good at anything,” I say. I tell him then how, when I was younger, I had wanted to be an architect. At that age I had loved the idea of building things, of seeing how various pieces came together, but my knowledge was largely cribbed together from what I had learned playing building sims. When I finally did try to test into the AP classes I would actually need, they wouldn’t even let me in. “I only got good at math because I had to learn it for things like STEM Club or AP Calculus,” I tell him. “I had to practice, just like you.”
“What about Aunt Nori?”
“That’s different,” I say. It always seemed to me growing up that Nori was better at everything, but in hindsight I think she only ever cared about her cameras, her photography. She was only perceived as gifted because she was given free rein to indulge her singular focus. I used to hate our parents for that, damning me with faint praise while giving Nori the freedom to explore her gifts. Meanwhile, the problem on Noah’s notebook lingers unsolved.
“Did you and Dad ever think about having more kids?”
“What now?” I ask. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“I don’t believe that’s any of your business,” I say. “Noah, where is all this coming from? Please talk to me.”
“Just forget it.” He rolls his eyes, goes back to staring into his tablet. His shoulders slump the way they do when he’s feeling defeated or ignored. My powers of professional empathy feel utterly useless here. “Show your work, how?” he asks of no one.
At the next soccer game, I bring it up with Troy. “You don’t think it’s a little strange?”
“Kids are curious,” he says. Noah’s team dashes past with the ball, and we cheer him on as he runs by. When it quiets down again Troy says, “This is still new for him. Hell, for everyone.”
“They haven’t even been introduced yet,” I say. “It’s a little early to have the ‘cool auntie’ thing happening.”
“He’s lonely. He wants someone to identify with.” He smiles in that way of his, whenever he’s planning to rib me for something. “You know, you’re a pretty tough act to follow, I dunno if you’ve picked up on that.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“It doesn’t mean anything.” He focuses back on the game. “Have you peeked at his sketches though lately?”
“Yes,” I tell him. “I’ve seen them, and they’re lovely. He’s also working on them in class instead of focusing on the material at hand. Why do you think he’s barely passing half of his courses?”
“The point is that he’s passing,” says Troy. “He needs an outlet to express himself.”
“And I agree. Art classes. Summer workshops. By all means. But he still needs to make some sort of effort in the core subjects.”
“Tell me again that any of this has anything to do with Noah’s math homework.” Troy shoots me a knowing look, and I fume. His cavalier attitude can be infuriating, but he isn’t without his moments of insight. I shout out encouragement as Noah sends a shot spinning off downfield.
“It was an offhand remark,” I say. “Kids don’t parse subtext the way we do, but still.”
“I get it,” he says. “And what about you? How’re you holding up?”
“Just fine, but obviously you have other opinions.”
“I forfeited my right to have an opinion years ago. Look, I get that this is bringing a lot of stuff back up for you. It would be for me. But Noah doesn’t deserve to be caught in the fallout.”
“I know, and I’m sorry.”
“You’re not little Kimi anymore,” he says, “You’re a different person now. Stronger. You’ve got people in your life who care. People who want to help.”
“That’s certainly very kind of you to say.”
“I mean it,” he says. “I’m here. Whatever you need.” He still does this sometimes, still leaves small doors open in our conversations, and I refuse to enter through them. A sense of finality is essential to achieving closure. I turn my attention back to the game.
“I appreciate you listening,” I say.
During visits with my sister, the conversations tend to be relatively anodyne, at least at first. A question about a recent news article, for example, or a discussion about changes in fashion or popular culture. Her inquiries almost always pertain to the larger world, rather than to my own life since her stasis. Occasionally, however, there is some overlap.
On one such occasion, I visit during one of Nori’s bi-weekly physical therapy sessions. They have her on a treadmill, hooked up to monitors, running intervals. Stasis can be hard on the human body, and patients often come out lacking the strength or endurance that they possessed before. According to her doctors, these regimens will help boost her mobility and cardiovascular health. Nori and I talk in between bursts of sprinting, indicated by a chime and a sudden increase in speed from the treadmill. When 60 seconds have elapsed, the pace from the machine slackens again. Nori slows to a walk, still breathing heavily. She gestures to her neck, indicating the pattern tattooed behind my right ear and jawbone. “That your subvoc?”
I smile. “You’re familiar, I take it?”
“Only from what I read on the internet. The Star Trek stuff was always your thing, not mine.” I bristle a bit. I had forgotten how dismissive she could be, but I refuse to let her condescend. I explain the concept: that what started as a way to interact directly with the internet of things, became a way to enable private comms between people. “Legally gray,” I say, “but hard to limit the way people use it. Jailbreaking, they call it.”
Nori looks skeptical. “Doesn’t seem a little bit ‘1984’ to you?”
“On the contrary,” I say, “it’s the only secure communication channel most people have now.” Nori looks unimpressed. The treadmill beeps and speeds back up, and this time I raise my voice as her feet resume pounding out their familiar rhythm. “You know, not all change is bad. Sometimes new tech, new disciplines make our lives better.”
She gestures around us. “Tell me how any of this is better.”
“You’re here now. What about that? Or my subvoc, letting me talk to people without some program snooping in. Advertisers, law-enforcement agencies. What about that?”
“She says, getting her phone literally tattooed into her skin.”
“They’re not even remotely the same thing,” I say. “Christ. You sound exactly like Mom and Dad.”
“Are you lecturing me?” The treadmill beeps, and she slows her pace. “Where the hell do you get off?”
“I am trying to explain to you the way that things work now.”
“I think I get it, thank you.”
“No,” I say, “I don’t think you do. Privacy is a commodity. We live in a very different world now.”
“So enlighten me.”
I glare at her. When I was 22 years old, returning from a post-graduation trip to New Zealand, I found myself detained by customs agents upon my arrival into SeaTac. No doubt they saw the last name Fukada, first name Kimiko, printed on my passport, and saw an excuse to accuse me of traveling under false cover. It was nearly six hours before a law-student friend could get them to acknowledge that I was in fact an American citizen, and not some spy or sleeper-agent of the Japanese military junta. Meanwhile last week, I read that members of a survivalist militia out east were killed by an airstrike, launched upon their compound by an Air Force drone flying high above the deserts of Kansas. I have heard it said that such end-of-the-world types decry tech like the subvoc as the mark of the beast– perhaps they believed that old burner cellphones and ham radios would keep them more secure. “You read the news,” I say. “You can draw your own conclusions.”
The treadmill beeps a final time, and Nori comes to a stop. She shoots me a withering look.
On another occasion, Nori and I are sitting on a bench in the hospital’s visitor atrium. A geodesic roof stretches above our heads, gives shelter to a host of once-native flora: cedar, fern, redwood. Moss covers every trunk, while sprinklers rain down mist that pools into droplets, patters down through the branches around us. I close my eyes and breathe in deeply. Nori asks me out of nowhere, “How did Mom and Dad die?”
I take a moment before responding. I think then of the first time my mother sat me down to tell me about Nori’s cancer. I think of having to explain to Noah, at five years old, why his father and I could no longer live together. “They were quick at least,” I say. “Few years apart. Dad left work with a headache one evening, called Mom up from the bus and halfway into their talk he just started slurring.”
“I’m guessing so. Couple of bystanders tried to pull him off the bus, grab him an uber to a hospital, but by the time they got him there, he was already gone.”
“Jesus. And Mom?”
“That was a bit worse,” I say. “How familiar are you with Parkinson’s?”
“Fair enough.” I explain then about the paranoia, the hallucinations that sometimes accompany the illness. “I didn’t realize at the time just how bad it actually gotten; we weren’t really talking much by that point. Anyway, one day not long after Noah was born, I get a call from the police. You remember the Schindlers next door?”
“Of course. Well anyway, I get this message from SPD, who tells me that Mr. Schindler came out to find Mom digging up her tulips with her bare hands, talking to herself. He tried to ask if she was alright, and she just swore at him up and down, stumbled out into traffic.”
“Oh god. And that blind curve.”
I nod. “I should have pushed her more to look at assisted-living options, before she really started to go. Maybe she’d still be here if I had.”
“You can’t think like that,” she says. For a long time then we sit in silence.
“You seem to be taking things more in stride,” I say.
“Just trying to come to terms, as you put it. Though I do have another question, if that’s okay?”
“When I was dying,” she says. “When they took me away, what did they do for me? The hospital I mean.”
Silence. I know what she’s hinting at, but I wish that I didn’t. “You mean a funeral.”
I close my eyes. “Of a sort,” I say. “A vigil, they called it.” I remember how hasty and thrown-together the entire affair had felt, how the hospital had imposed strict limits on how many could be even invited. As a result, I only saw a few of Nori’s friends from grad school, along with several family acquaintances and colleagues of my parents. I recall the smell of disinfectant and incense that had hung over everything, the hard clonewood pews of the hospital prayer-space. I remember my mother sitting stone-faced on my left, my father on my right. I remember how lost and vaguely guilty he had looked, how he spent most of the time trying to meet my mother’s gaze and being ignored. Up at the front, a woman with short gray hair, clad in full vestments – a minister of some kind, intoning words of solace. On the table beside her sat a framed photograph of my sister, lit by candles. Not even a body to display, I remember thinking. I tried to imagine the girl I grew up with lying in some hospital storage unit somewhere, wrapped in plastic and pumped full of refrigerant. I would have nightmares around that idea for months–the thought of the lid closing above me, the transfusion freezing in my veins, the plastic film sealing off my mouth, my lungs. No longer even a person at that point, but an object. A unit of preserved tissue.
“Just give me a moment please.” To this day, I hardly remember any of what was said by those who took the podium. What I do remember is how at the end, instead of Amen, the minister had proclaimed Until we meet once more. It felt like a cruel thing to say, a promise that no one had any reason to expect would be kept. After what felt like an unbearable silence, people at last began to get up quietly and leave. I watched them go, heard their murmurs and sniffles. I remember saying to them No, remember saying You can’t leave, it isn’t over. I remember my father’s hand on my shoulder, remember him saying Kimi please. I remember shouting that he was letting them take her away, that they didn’t have the right, that it wasn’t fair. My mother finally started to cry, and my father whispered to me Kimi, not now, you’re making a scene. I hated him then for not crying the way we all were. I told him as much, to his face.
“Hey.” Nori places a hand on my shoulder. “Listen, it’s okay, I shouldn’t have asked. Just forget I said anything, I’m sorry.”
“I’m the one who’s sorry.” I start to cry, unable to stop myself.
“It’s okay,” she says again. “I’m here and we’re okay.” She pulls me into her arms, and for one very brief moment I’m back to being the younger sister again. The trees and ferns around us say nothing, and for a time we mourn what is lost, in silence, together.
On the day of her discharge, Nori calls me from one of the hospital courtesy phones. I can grab my own gear, she says. Just meet me with the car downstairs. We go to pick her up, and on the ride in, Noah can barely contain himself. He bounces in his seat, watches every passing pedestrian. “I don’t even know what she looks like,” he says.
“Like me but younger, I suppose.” It occurs to me that he’s never actually seen a photo of her. “Longer hair. More ink.”
“Tattoos.” We pull up to the main entrance, and above us looms the hospital, all skywalks and gleaming surfaces. Out front are a throng of patients and their families, waiting for pickup. Some are on foot, some in wheelchairs, many laden with bags or heavy suitcases. Nori however stands off to the side, in jeans and a red hoodie. Her luggage is limited to an old black messenger bag and one plastic hospital footlocker. I smile and wave through the window, pop the car’s rear hatch. Nori tosses her things into the trunk and piles in.
“Get me the hell out of here,” she says.
The drive home is quieter than I expected. Noah stares at her, grinning, from the backseat. Nori meanwhile presses her face to the window, peers up at all the new construction overhead. She takes in the daytime traffic around us, says “The cars are all so ugly now.”
That night, I make us a fancy dinner–garlic-parmesan chicken with twice-baked potatoes. The ingredients nearly double our grocery bill for the week, but I’ve been wanting so badly to do something nice. After our last conversation in the atrium, I finally feel ready to try again with my sister. That she is even here with us tonight, at this table, is a chance most families never receive.
She eats slowly, never seems quite to know what to do with her silverware. Noah plies her with questions, and she tries to answer candidly, but only ends up sounding forced and awkward. At one point he asks, “You ever read any Marvel?”
She looks up. “I’m sorry?”
“Noah here is a big fan of the Hulk,” I say. “Amadeus Cho is one of his heroes.”
“You should check out Captain America,” he says. “The older ones, back when it was still Steve Rogers? He was frozen at one point, I think.”
“Maybe I should sometime.” Nori smiles. “How old are you, Noah?”
“And if you hadn’t gotten sick,” he asks, “How old would you be?”
“Noah.” I set down my utensils. “Eat your dinner, please.”
“Forty-five.” Nori says this without looking up from her meal. “I’d be forty-five years old.” Noah meanwhile gives me a sideways glance, before going back to his food.
Later, Noah gets ready for bed, and Nori stakes out the futon in my office. I give a knock on the door after she’s gotten changed, find her with a splay of items across the bedding in front of her: a collection of store-bought toiletries, some old clothing, a few books. In an ancient leather case, her beloved Nikon camera, once a birthday gift from our father. She notices me in the doorway, straightens and feigns nonchalance.
“I just wanted to come give you your welcome-home present,” I say.
Her smile is pained. “Listen, I’m fine, I promise. All of this is perfect. Really.”
“Stop.” I produce from behind my back the box containing her gift–she takes it with some hesitation, opens it to find a brand-new computer, black and chrome. She pulls it out slowly and turns it over, runs a thumb along its edges.
“God that’s big for a tablet,” she says. “How do you turn it on?”
“It actually has a laptop mode. Here.” I press and hold one corner, and the holographic display flickers into being. Nori starts. The startup logo spins onscreen, and she looks at me.
“This really wasn’t necessary.”
“I just wanted you to have something to work from,” I say. “You deserve it.”
“Well thank you.” I watch as she begins to experiment with the new interface. “Hey, how do you connect to the internet on this?”
“Everything’s public now,” I say. “I pre-loaded with everything you’ll need. VPN, professional-grade imaging software. I even managed to pull most of your old portfolio.”
“Call it inheritance,” I say. I explain then that after our mother died, executorship passed down to me. “For the last few years I’ve been the legal custodian for all our family data. Now that you’re back, I don’t have to be.”
“This is amazing.” Her words are genuine, but her gaze is clouded. I worry that I’ve somehow offended her.
“You don’t like it,” I say.
“That’s not it at all.” She seems so sad. “Listen, I’ve just had a long day. I’m probably going to brush my teeth and get ready for bed. Thank you though.”
That night, I have trouble sleeping as usual. I get up for a glass of water, come out to find Nori curled up in the reading nook by the window. She glances back at me, framed in silhouette by the lights of the city. A wave of déjà vu–for years after they took her, I used to dream of waking to find her in my bedroom, watching me from the shadows. Perhaps I’m still dreaming now. I ask her, “Am I intruding?”
She shrugs, turns her attention back to the skyline.
“I’ll put on tea. Chamomile, if that’s alright.” I pad barefoot into the kitchen, fill the pot with water and subvoc the burner on. I don’t even bother with the lights anymore. After so many years, I’ve grown accustomed to navigating in the darkness.
When I come back, Nori hasn’t moved at all. She takes her mug, and I crawl into the nook beside her. I take a sip. “When I was first looking at places,” I say, “after Troy and I separated, this spot right here was what sold me. I imagined Noah and I would curl up here and read books together. Now he’s too grown up for all that.”
“You’re his mom.” She looks out across the city, all neomodern high-rises and prefab housing blocks. Construction cranes and giant industrial printers dot the horizon. “There’s so much more of it now.”
“I think there was more of it back then than you remember.” I remember reading somewhere that in the last thirty years, some eighty percent of the American population had relocated to either the west or the upper east coast. Some did so seeking work; others, to escape droughts and deadly heat waves. Hardly anyone lives on the Gulf now, and all across the world countless other places are simply no longer habitable. So many places reduced to either silence or static. “Populations don’t just grow or shrink, they also migrate.”
“It doesn’t even look like Seattle,” she says. “Makes me think of like LA, or I dunno, Tokyo.”
“Mm.” I’ve been to Los Angeles; neither of us has ever been to Tokyo. For some moments, we drink our tea in silence. At last I say, “You’ve barely said a word since we came home. Talk to me.”
“What’s to talk about?” she says. “Everyone just carries on like nothing is any different. Like, to the point that it freaks me out.”
“Derealization, they call that.” In truth, I’ve been experiencing something similar–even now, I see her and find myself looking for the seams that will reveal her as some feat of visual-effects trickery. A flaw in the way that light is rendered, some facial expression that seems too flat. I keep expecting her to out herself as an illusion, and when she doesn’t some part of my mind panics, tries to reconcile what shouldn’t be. “The doctor says it’s just a side-effect. It’ll get easier the longer you’re out.”
“Meaning it’ll just start to feel normal. None of this is normal.”
I take the rest of the week off to help Nori with getting reintegrated. The first few days are a blur of appointments: the Social Security office, the bank, the state Department of Licensing. At each location, the staff look at the date of birth on file, then at the young woman standing before them. No one can find her in any systems, because for two decades her data footprint has been completely nonexistent. Tasks like ordering new ID, or opening up a checking account, require at least a supervisor and a retinal scan. There are procedures in place for a case like Nori’s, though no one has ever actually had to look them up.
Credit lines. Insurance history. Debt. Nearly all evidence that my sister once existed has rolled off. All except the student loans. All except the threat of the hospital bill.
There are other hurdles as well. To drive now requires not only a field test, but a written exam–Nori doesn’t even make it past the written. “I don’t ever remember it being that complicated,” she says later.
“Thankfully there’s actual train service now.” Quite frankly, if asked to take the same exam myself, I’m no longer certain that I would pass it. Suffice to say that I’m thankful for the auto-pilot feature on my Hyundai. “We’ll study for next time, but for now you should be able to manage without.”
When not busy with administrative errands, we spend our time shopping for things Nori still needs, chief among them an updated wardrobe. We find ourselves at the old Macy’s on 3rd and Pine one afternoon. She busies herself in one of the fitting rooms, while I wait with our cart. She emerges after some time, tosses her pile of garments down on the bench. “No.”
“No?” I watch as she begins stuffing items back onto hangars. “You took at least ten different items in there. No to which ones?”
“All of it,” she says. “I get out and everyone dresses like a freak.”
“What? I don’t.”
“Yeah, but you’re…” She gestures, and I can hear the implication in her tone: old. I look down at my own ensemble: black Armani blazer, white V-neck, blue jeans with vintage Chuck Taylors. I specifically chose the look to be low-key and casual.
“Exactly. I should have expected this.”
“It’s the fashion now.”
“It’s hideous.” She holds up a pair of burgundy trousers, the material strangely iridescent. “These are supposed to be slacks.”
“The style is a bit young, I’ll admit.”
“Maybe we can just hit up a thrift store later,” she says. “They still have those, right?”
“Good luck finding anything more to your liking,” I say. “You can’t just wear the same five band tee-shirts from twenty years ago.”
“Watch me.” She piles the collection atop the counter and walks off; I rifle through for the items that I think most closely fit with her aesthetic, then toss them back into the cart.
“We still have to pay,” I call out after her.
Later, on the way back to the car, we swing by an electronics store and pick her up an inexpensive phone. We make our way downhill to where we parked, and as we walk she busies herself with the new features. “You’ll be able to take phone calls and access the internet,” I tell her, “but everything’s monitored now, so try not to say or post anything that you wouldn’t want seen.”
Nori rolls her eyes. “Wouldn’t want to risk getting in trouble with Big Brother.”
“Try your employer. Try your health insurer. Try a future lender.” I unlock the car and we climb in. “We really ought to think about getting you a subvoc.”
Nori looks at the markings on my neck, as if they were some sort of infection. “Absolutely not,” she says.
One afternoon a few days later, while Nori is busy with job applications, I come upon Noah curled up in the reading nook. He has his tablet with him, but instead of schoolwork he has his sketchpad open. He hunches over the paper-white screen, carefully drawing out a line. “What are you working on?” I ask.
“The comic.” He flips the stylus over, erases his line and then redraws it. I slide into the nook beside him. Noah has been working on his comic for months now–he speaks little of it, but it consumes nearly all of his free time, at the expense of both homework and chores. He begs me to take him to the library on our days off, spends hours perusing video tutorials, old graphic novels. Last month, when the book fair came through school, he came home with a pair of how-to drawing guides for kids. He knows the names of every illustrator from his childhood picture books. I peer in over his shoulder.
He does have a remarkable gift, I will admit. His lines are uneven, his shading too busy, his hand still unsure in the way of youth, but the books and hours of how-tos have been paying off. No talking heads inside of hand-drawn boxes here; Noah’s panels flow and overlap and dominate the page. I’m reminded of an old Calvin and Hobbes print my father used to keep in his office. I remember asking him once about it once when I was eleven, and he gave me some reply about the creativity and curiosity of children. On Noah’s current page, a boy in goggles and superhero gear encounters a sealed casket, wipes frost from its glass porthole. Sleeping inside lies a young woman. I ask him, “What’s the ‘A’ on his chest?”
He replies without looking up. “The Archivist.”
Later after dinner, Nori and Noah play videogames in the living room. They race over splitscreen, pilot futuristic hovercraft at speeds that threaten to leave me motion-sick. I linger on the balcony with my fingers to my neck, messaging with Troy. He informs me that he’s been thinking about Noah’s soccer league again. I thought maybe once the season was over, I might ask him and see if he wants to stick with it, or try something else.
Why? I ask. He’s doing really well.
He doesn’t enjoy it, he says. It’s something he does because I want him to, not because he wants to.
You’ve never been one to pressure him.
No, but kids pick up certain messages. A pause. From inside Noah shouts, “Who’re you talking to?”
“Your dad. Grown-up stuff.”
“Hey, Dad!” He speaks without taking his eyes off the screen. His hands are a blur on the controller, and Nori curses as she tries to match his dexterity. I go back to my conversation. Noah says hey.
Hey, kiddo. I can feel the smile in his words, in a way that text never connote. He’s been asking for a longboard for his birthday. Things are almost as big as he is.
He made some mention, I say. Tell me we’re not just encouraging him to just abandon a thing, whenever it gets hard.
It isn’t hard for him, says Troy. He just doesn’t care. If you told him right now that his practice was cancelled tomorrow, he’d go right back to his room with his sketchpad and his handheld. It’s okay for him to have different interests.
You guys bond over sports.
I bond over sports, he says. I don’t want to be that dad, pushing his interests onto his kid. You remember my old man–I did JROTC all through school just to make him happy. All it did was make me hate him.
So what are you proposing?
I dunno–maybe we try asking him. From the living room, Noah shouts and pumps his fist in the air. Nori shoves him playfully, and Noah shoves back. They have a real connection, one I admittedly envy. Who knows? Maybe we take him out to the skate park over by my place.
I’m already imagining the doctor’s bills, I say. I’m going to head back in for now. We can talk about this more soon.
Sounds good. See you. I go back inside, join Nori and Noah on the couch. They’re busy selecting their vehicles prior to the next race; I tousle Noah’s hair and kiss the top of his head. “Your dad says hey kiddo.”
That weekend, Noah goes to his father’s house. A week passes, during which time Nori searches for jobs and housing. The results are less than encouraging–housing in Seattle was already expensive, and the years have only seen the problem worsen. Now, more tenants vie for fewer openings. We discuss this one morning, while I check my emails and Nori looks at ads for roommates. “Too creepy,” she says of one. “Too old.”
“What about cohousing?” I ask. “I saw some nice listings over in West Seattle.”
“Ew.” She swipes continually left, as if dismissing a procession of suitors. “Let me pay half of my weekly income to rent a fancy bunk bed. In shifts.”
“Well, considering that right now your income consists entirely of my income, I’d say we’re thinking rather far ahead for all that.” She shoots me a dirty look over the top of her computer, goes back to swiping. From behind, her screen depicts a shimmering illusion of the lower half of her face. “Urban cricket farmer,” she says. “Rents from her parents. Ugh, hopelessly basic.”
“You are entirely too judgmental,” I say. “The fact is, whatever you find in this market is going to be small, it’s going to have shared services, and yes, you’re probably going to have to lower your expectations surrounding roommates.”
She looks around us. “You managed just fine.”
“The difference here is that I can afford it. Who knows though? Maybe you’ll get lucky.”
She doesn’t hear me. She appears to have paused on a candidate, cocks an appraising eyebrow. “Cute,” she says. “Seems normal enough.” Swipes right.
The job market turns out to be even bleaker. I assist Nori with rides to job fairs, call in a few connections for interviews–the Seattle Times, the PI, the Stranger. When those fall flat, we turn to design firms, marketing firms, PR, anywhere that might require a full-time photographer or editor. Perhaps it’s simply a glut of qualified applicants; perhaps the economy has simply changed. Over the week that follows, I watch as leads dry up and Nori’s morale falters.
One afternoon, we’re riding home from yet another interview. Nori stews, looking uncomfortable in one of my borrowed blazers. Out of nowhere she undoes her seatbelt, pulls off the blazer, crumples it up and throws it into the back seat. For several moments, the cabin chimes with the sound of the seatbelt alarm.
I ask, “Were you going to get that?”
She sighs and does as asked. “Such bullshit,” she says. “The entire thing is bullshit.”
“It was one interview.”
“Out of how many?” She looks out the window. “Maybe the articles were right, maybe I need to be looking overseas. China somewhere, or Dubai.”
“You really don’t want the kinds of jobs you can get in China or Dubai. Did they at least offer you any kind of feedback?”
“They didn’t have to. Right out the gate, one guy on the panel said he thought my portfolio work was ‘dated.’ I won contests for those shots.”
“Business types don’t always appreciate creative photography,” I say. “Just give it time. You’ve got degrees, you’ve got work published, you’ve got internships.”
“They wanted something more recent,” she says. She strains to get a better look as we pass Green Lake on our right. Here a break in the endless high-rises, a place where rows of lakefront houses still crowd against the water’s edge. Residential neighborhoods have increasingly become an affectation of the rich. “Any idea whatever happened to the old house?”
“I sold it after Mom died.” I brace, expecting her to be angry, but she just looks at her feet. Perhaps she expected this. “Would you like to go see it?”
Her reflection in the window frowns. “Can we?”
We lean on the hood of the car, parked just up the street from our old childhood home. The day is hot and bright and perfectly quiet, like a thousand summer afternoons from my youth. I have a memory of being Noah’s age, straddling my bicycle and staring down a world of possibilities. Nori says, “I hate what they’ve done with the color.”
I frown. “The pink is an interesting choice.”
“They cut down my tree.”
“Old oaks like that are hard to keep healthy.” It isn’t just her tree–all up and down the block now, yards are being planted with acacia, jacaranda, eucalyptus. Still other homeowners favor hybrid clones found nowhere in nature, engineered for drought and insect resistance. Xeriscaping is increasingly common, though a few holdouts still maintain green lawns, expensively irrigated. That kind of extravagance with water seems alien to me now.
“What did you get for the house?” she asks.
I shake my head. “The number would just make you angry.”
“So? Tell me.”
“Enough for the condo, and for Noah’s college fund besides.” The screen door to the house pushes open, and the current resident, a woman in her thirties, emerges with a tablet in hand, wearing a pair of oversized sunglasses. She takes up a spot on the porch swing they’ve installed, settles in and begins to thumb through invisible pages. She looks like the kind of person for whom work has only ever existed as an abstraction. She reminds me of the trees and the flowers here now–a transplant, beautiful and out-of-place. Nori looks on with an expression like longing.
“You didn’t have to sell it,” she says. “I wouldn’t have sold it.”
“You weren’t around to ask.” The house had actually been a sore point between Troy and I. At the time, Noah had just been born, and Troy thought it would be the perfect place to begin our family. He had never owned a house himself, couldn’t understand my eagerness to be rid of it. I couldn’t tell him how I dreaded the thought of living with so many old ghosts within those walls–perhaps I feared I might long to join them. Troy eventually gave up on the matter, but I know some part of him resented me for it. In hindsight, I think that may have marked the beginning of our end. Meanwhile a police gunship passes thumping overhead; its shadow crosses over yards and rooftops and then is gone again. The woman on our porch looks up, notices the gunship receding, then notices us.
“We should probably go,” I say.
The visit to the house affects Nori more than she is willing to acknowledge. I should have anticipated that it might be hard for her. Part of me longs to say something in my own defense, but what? I sold off our childhood home, because I didn’t want to deal with the grief that it encompassed.
That night over dinner, she asks me, somewhat unexpectedly, about my work. I’ll admit that I’m rather taken aback, but at the same time I’m touched by her sudden interest. I try to answer her questions to the best of my abilities.
“It’s not just social media,” I try to explain at one point. “That’s active data footprint. What I’m talking about is passive footprint, the data you generate just by existing. It’s location check-ins, purchase histories, photos you’re tagged in with other people. It’s about networks you accessed, places you lived, people you connected with. It’s like… tree-rings or fossil tracks; it reflects the shape and trajectory of one’s lived experience.”
She spoons up a bite of polenta. “So then, you get rid of people’s dirty laundry too? Scrub their search histories?”
“I am empowered in a limited way to manage the privacy of my client’s digital estates, per their final wishes.”
Nori seems unconvinced. “So, do Mom and Dad have an archive then?”
I take a sip of water. “Sorry, no. Not currently.”
I smile. I am uncomfortable with this entire line of questioning. “I’ve worked at the idea some, over the years, but I’ve just never really completed anything.”
“So what would it take to complete?”
“Time,” I say. I’m not sure if I mean in labor-hours or grief expended. “You know, if you wanted to, we could always go out to my place of employment sometime. Visit their urns.”
“I don’t know that I’m ready for that,” she says.
The change in Nori’s mood deepens. Over the following days, she becomes quieter, helps out more with the housework. She responds to questions plainly, without any of her usual snark or pushback. I suppose that I should consider this an improvement, but it feels like a lie to me, a way for my sister to put up walls between herself and the world. I find myself missing her cynical affect. I find it a shame, because I do enjoy her as a person, whatever our differences in age or maturity. I want to know her better, and it saddens me to realize that I don’t.
I decide to take that Friday for just the two of us. I wake Nori early; we head into town for bagels, then cross the bridge over into West Seattle. We order coffees down at Alki Quay, take a stroll down along the waterfront.
The weather that morning is bright and breezy, the waters choppy. I’m told that there used to be a beach where we now stand, though the rising waves have long since claimed it. Now those same waves crash against the pier, while massive hotels block out the sun overhead. I’m reminded of the old paintings by the Spanish Surrealists, black shadows falling across hard bright earth. I mention it to Nori. “Refresh me on the word for that?”
“Chiaroscuro.” She gives her answer automatically, without looking up. The breeze tugs at her ponytail, her windbreaker, and I’m reminded of the weekend outings we used to take as a family. She is so much more beautiful than I remembered. She notices me staring at her, asks me “What?”
“Nothing.” The wind stings at my eyes, and I smile. “We should find somewhere to eat. Are you hungry?”
We take lunch outdoors at a nearby bistro, then back over the bridge into downtown. We wander Pike Place, the New Waterfront, the Amazon Gardens. Nori inquires about the Space Needle, but I say, “The view isn’t what it used to be. All the new development. I took Mom a few years back, you’d just be disappointed.”
Later, we visit the Seattle Art Museum. The feature that month is an exhibition titled “Here and Now: Pacific Northwest Art in the 21st Century.” It presents itself as a kind of regional retrospective, spanning from turn-of-the-century Instagram photography, to the mixed-media and sculpture installations currently in vogue. All the artists are local to Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, the Yukon Indigenous Administrative Region, and Alaska.
We wander with no particular objective, taking in the featured works. One room is devoted entirely to repurposed Civil-War era relics. Railgun emplacements, troop transports, all graffiti’d and reworked into new shapes by a blacksmith. At the center of the hall, posed upright as if climbing skyward, towers the gutted hulk of an old fighter jet. It is garlanded with cedar boughs, painted to resemble an osprey in the Coastal Salish style. All this, Nori informs me from the placard, is the work of a First Nations artist from Aberdeen, and is titled Reclamation. “This one here’s No. 9, apparently.”
“Mm,” I say. “Swords to ploughshares, I suppose.”
We head deeper into the museum, eventually going our separate ways. I end up drawn to a collection of sculptures, built from the 3D-printed bones of extinct animals. Each evokes a classical work in grotesque negative: The Creation of Adam, Judith and Holofernes, Saturn Devouring His Son. I find myself drawn to the Goya homage in particular, where the human victim is held aloft, half-eaten, by a monstrous assemblage of every great beast our species has ever slaughtered. Polar bear, giant ground sloth, mountain gorilla. The terror-stricken face of the original has been replaced by the gaping jaws of what the placard states is a Siberian tiger, and I find this fitting somehow. The sins of our past consuming our present, and thus our future.
From across the hall, I suddenly can hear Nori exclaiming, far too loudly, “What the fuck. What the fuck.” I look up at the source of the commotion. All around, other patrons are clearly perturbed. I cross the room quickly, seize Nori by the arm before she can embarrass us further.
“May I help you?” I hiss.
“Get off me.” She pulls away, goes back to the feature that has her so riled up: a black-and-white photography series, taking up an entire wall. The featured artist on the placard is a middle-aged woman, with impeccable cheekbones and upswept red hair going gray. Her work tends toward atmospheric shots, stark and heavily-filtered. I don’t recognize her name, though Nori certainly does. “That’s Bly Maddox,” she tells me. She explains then that they were in art school together. “We actually dated for a while. Before I got sick.”
“Oh, how lovely.” I turn back to the display, avoiding the gaze of the curator wandering in our direction. “What a small world.”
“Like hell.” She goes and points to the central work, a panorama depicting carbon-capture towers, anchored off the Olympic coast during a storm. “This was my piece. My fucking piece. I spent months on that shot, I can’t fucking believe her! Where the hell did she even find this?”
“You are making a scene,” I say. I understand that she has every right to be angry, but the attention we’re drawing has my anxiety in overdrive. Off to our right, the curator is approaching us with a concerned expression. Other patrons are staring at us, and at least one person has pulled out a cellphone. “There are better ways to seek redress for this sort of thing. Perhaps we can talk about them more quietly, maybe on the way home?”
“I’m sorry folks, is something the matter?”
I glance over at the curator. She seems eager to avoid a confrontation, to have this quietly brushed aside. “We were just leaving,” I say. “Nori?”
“Whatever.” She looks back at the Maddox exhibit again before we go. Shakes her head. Mouths the word bitch under her breath.
Nori fumes the whole way back to the car, and on the way home. I can feel her shaking next to me. Only as we park in my driveway does she finally speak up. “Listen, I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” I say. “Perhaps we should file some sort of complaint with the museum. Maybe get an attorney?”
“What would be the point?” she asks. “I’m nobody. She’s somebody now. My word against hers. Like with everything else.”
“Not just your word,” I remind her. “We still have your portfolios. They’re on your computer. Maybe there’s still something there. Some kind of proof.”
“And do what then, sue her? Go through all of that all over again? Look, it’s over and she won. I don’t have the energy to fight about it.” Outside, great thunderclouds are building overhead. “Everyone’s moved on. Everyone has families, careers. You. Bly.”
“It isn’t that simple,” I say.
“You guys have at least done something. You’ve at least got something to show.”
“I think you’re forgetting all that you have to be grateful for here.”
“Like what?” she says. “Some new scars? Permanent nerve damage? My pictures are hanging in some art gallery under someone else’s name. What the hell do I have to be grateful for?”
I say nothing. On the windshield, droplets of rain begin to appear.
“Look, I’m sorry. Just forget it.” She goes for her door handle, then pauses. “What else has changed?”
That night, it thunderstorms, an unusual phenomenon for July, and the news covers it as a once-in-a-decade occurrence. The rain drums on the window during dinner, where we eat in silence. Nori disappears into the study afterward, closes the door behind her. I set to loading the dishwasher and tidying up.
After perhaps an hour, her door bursts open as I’m pouring myself a drink. She brushes past me in tears, snatches her jacket and bag off the hook. Goes for the door, then stops. “I’m going out.” She manages to keep her voice from shaking. “I need you to reload my card for me. Please.”
I watch her. The sound of the rain outside is like steel bearings on hardwood. I set aside the bottle of bourbon, open up my tablet sitting on the counter. “Of course,” I say. “You have my number? You remember how to get to the train stop?”
“I’ll map it. Thank you.” The sound of the rain gets louder as she opens the door, then goes quiet again. I watch her walk off into the night, head down and hood up. I take a sip of my drink and take my tablet into the living room.
The door to her room is open, the screenlight harsh against the lamplit walls. I can’t help but peer inside. There’s something intimate about a space only recently deserted–a sense of trespass, of absence. Like a sleeping face after the life has vacated it, like the data-wakes my clients leave in their passing. That sudden cessation one day of all activity. I have lived inside that sense of absence these last twenty years now. It is the only place I feel safe, the only place I can hear myself think. I slip inside, careful to disturb nothing.
Her computer screen is still up, left open on her social media. I am surprised to find myself looking at the official profile of the woman from the museum, this Bly Maddox. I search my memories and after some effort I finally recall her: a young woman in her twenties, with green eyes and a nose piercing, some partner that my sister brought around while I was still in high school. For all my effort, however, I can’t remember when we would have met, or at what point she stopped coming around. In any case, there is another woman in the picture beside her now. Their recent photos appear to show a beachfront wedding, the pair resplendent in simple dresses, exchanging vows barefoot in the sand.
It is true of course that we only ever know our family members, our parents and siblings, incompletely. It is especially true when we are children, though in the face of illness or family crisis it is also true as well. We speak so much of our loved ones’ perseverance, their courage, though we rarely ask what they battles they must be fighting internally. We rarely ask what it is they have lost. Slowly I sit down upon the futon. Raindrops patter against the window.
I wait up late for Nori’s return, checking messages on the couch. I try to imagine where she might be–out riding the trains perhaps, or out at a club? I seem to recall that she was a fan of dance music, but I have no idea what style or period. I pass out sometime after midnight, wake up late the next morning with the sun in my eyes. I peek into the study and find her safely asleep. When I emerge from the shower, she is awake, already starting the coffee. By the time I’ve gotten dressed she is sitting at the table. I pour myself a cup and join her. “Are you all right?”
She looks at me, shrugs.
“I think I finally figured out where I met your friend Bly,” I say. “Thanksgiving dinner, my freshman year of high school. Mom was talking like you guys thought she might be The One.”
Nori rolls her eyes.
“I couldn’t help but notice you stalking her profile page last night.”
She glares at me. “You went into my room. You looked on my computer.”
“Your door was open,” I say. “I didn’t touch anything. I was just trying to understand, I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. You’ve been the one telling me that I can’t expect any privacy.” She falls silent, stares into her mug.
“What happened between you two?” I ask.
“What do you think?” She talks then about being diagnosed, how at the time her doctors were convinced she only had six to nine months. “We all were pretty sure I was gonna die. She couldn’t take it, so she bailed.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Her loss, right?” Nori sniffles and wipes at her eyes. “It’s good though. She looks good. They both look really happy together.”
“I’m sorry anyway.” These things happened decades ago, but for her I imagine the hurt must be far more recent. “How do I not remember you two breaking up?”
She shrugs. “Bigger concerns, I guess.”
“A partner leaving after a terminal diagnosis seems like a pretty big concern. Did Mom and Dad know?”
“They did. I told Mom I was the one who broke it off. I didn’t want her to be mad at Bly. So stupid of me.”
“It’s not stupid to still love someone who hurts you,” I say. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“What were we going to do? Pour our hearts out sitting on your bed? Talk about our feelings? What grade were you even in at the time?”
“Ninth. I would have listened.”
“You were like twelve. Were you even old enough be dating?”
“Fourteen,” I was. “And as a matter of fact, I was.” I think then back to long afternoons after school with my best male friend, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder against our lockers. I remember the away trips with the debate team, the long playlists we made for each other. I wanted so badly to share what I was feeling with someone. “I wanted to be close to you,” I say. “I still want that.”
“And what, you thought this was going to be some sort of second chance?” Her voice takes a mocking tone. “Look, I’m grateful that you’ve been here, I really am. But I never asked for this. I never wanted this. And here I am stuck now in some bullshit future with our parents gone, and you bossing me around, and my ex married to someone else, cashing in on my fucking work.”
I don’t say anything. I can feel my mouth move, but the words refuse to come.
“Look, just forget it.” She drains her coffee and pushes back from the table. “I’m gonna go grab a shower. After that I might take my computer, head into town. Maybe hit up the library.”
“It’s a Saturday,” I call after her. She ignores me and vanishes into the study. When she emerges again, she has her towel and hygiene bag. “What on earth for?”
She calls back from the bathroom. “What do you think?”
She is gone all the rest of that day. By the time I go to pick up Noah from his father’s, she still hasn’t returned. Only after Noah has gone to bed, and I’m sitting down to catch up on work, does she burst through the front door. She drops her bag on the floor in the hallway, in spite of the wall-mounted hook, and disappears into the study. When she comes out, she heads straight for the kitchen, raids the refrigerator. “This pasta spoken for?”
“It’s cacciatore. It has mushrooms in it.” This doesn’t seem to faze her. She reheats the leftovers in the microwave, stares at her feet as she waits for the timer. When her dinner comes up, she doesn’t bother with a bowl, just takes it with her in the container. I ask “How did your day go?”
She shrugs, already heading back to the study. “It went, I guess.”
This routine continues the next day, and the day after that. Only on Monday does she come home at a reasonable hour. I’m pulling dinner out of the oven, and so I don’t hear the door when she enters. I glance back just in time to see Noah tackle her in the hallway; she glances up at me and smiles painfully. I notice that she’s wearing the blazer I loaned her.
“Well this is a surprise,” I say. “Your timing is perfect. You can have a little break from leftovers.” I finish plating up everyone’s tilapia and couscous, look up and realize that I’ve left the TV on. Onscreen, the Pacific Garbage Fire is continuing into its second month. A wall of flame and smoke curtains the horizon, reduces the eastern sun to a pale red orb. Boats of all sizes deploy water cannons, to virtually no effect. Cut to a shot of the fire visible from orbit, a bright smoking crescent like lava flowing into the sea. It must stretch on for hundreds of miles. I swipe the TV off from where I sit and Nori says, unprompted, “I got a job.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful.” I reach for my glass of Riesling. “That was quick. I told you something would work out. Where at?”
I frown a moment. “The retail chain?”
She looks up and studies me a moment. I feel as though I’ve missed something. She rolls her eyes and goes back to her fish. “Yeah. The retail chain.”
“So what are you doing? Photography? Marketing? Graphic design?”
“Stocking,” she says. “I start Wednesday.”
“You mean like bookshelves?” Suddenly it all starts to make sense–the sudden hire, how soon they want her to start. No doubt they’re desperate for people. “You know what, it’s still a big milestone and you should be proud. This can be a stepping stone to something bigger.”
She shakes her head, spears up a bite of tilapia with her fork.
Nori quickly launches herself into 12 and 14-hour days. Soon we barely see her at all. She’s gone most morning before I’m even up, doesn’t return again until after I’m asleep. Sometimes she gets home and I start awake at the sound of the door–I can lie there and can listen to her raiding the fridge, bolting her food upright in the kitchen, brushing her teeth in the bathroom sink before bed. I’m reminded of how, after college, some friends and I shared a house for about a year. For roughly two months of that, one of my housemates had a cousin stay with us.
Most of us never even saw her, and those who had couldn’t accurately describe her. One night I remember getting up to go to the bathroom, only to discover her already in there. I remember lurking in the dark around the corner, dreading the prospect of an introduction and awkward small talk at that hour. I never got another chance to say hello, and I never learned why she left. There comes a point when we don’t have the energy for human interaction, when it simply becomes easier to live with the sound of each other’s presence in the other room. It begins to feel that way with Nori.
Noah quickly picks up that something is amiss. One afternoon he’s in the nook, working on his sketches. He asks me without looking up, “Why doesn’t Aunt Nori like us anymore?”
“She’s just working,” I say.
“Because she doesn’t want to be around us,” he says. “I didn’t mean to bug her so much.”
“You have never bugged anyone,” I say. I slide into the nook. “Look at me. What’s going on with Aunt Nori has nothing to with us. She’s just going through a lot right now. Do you remember when you were younger, and your dad and I got divorced?”
He winces, but nods. I suppose it’s my turn now to pick at old scars.
“That was a really rough time, wasn’t it? We almost had to pull you out of kindergarten.”
“You guys were yelling all the time. I didn’t want to come home either.”
“Neither did I.” In my work, I have learned how to cultivate a certain professional distance, a poise that helps me stay centered. I imagine it must be the same for doctors, or for social workers. That ability to exist at one remove from other people’s suffering is easy in the context of a working relationship, but I’ve never been able to do the same with my son. I blink to clear my vision. “That kind of hurt didn’t just go away, did it?”
“Of course not. And the same is true here. Your Aunt Nori’s hurting, and it’s still fresh. But it’ll get better, I promise.”
“I guess.” I suspect most children learn to distrust the promises of adults from an early age. “You don’t ever seem like you’re hurting though.”
“I’ve been dealing with it for longer.” I smile and kiss the top of his head. “You should finish your drawing–maybe you could let me see it when you’re done?”
Nori comes home unexpectedly one evening. I’m sitting at the coffee table, busy working on my tablet. She keys in and blows past me into the study. When she emerges in a different outfit, I say, “You’re home early.”
“Saturdays I only work an eight-hour shift.”
“Eight hours would be four hours ago. Like two in the afternoon.”
“I know.” She slips into the bathroom. “I’m going back out. I just wanted to swing by and change first.” She leans over the sink with the door open, takes a moment to reapply her makeup. Something catches my eye, a series of dark geometric lines on her neck. They frame her right ear and jawbone like pathways, reach down to a contact point just above her clavicle. The borders are still fresh, still raw and angry, still shining with a thin coat of ointment.
“What is this?” I say. “When did you get this?”
“You’re going to make me fuck up my mascara.” She ignores my gaze in the mirror.
“I thought you hated the idea of a subvoc.”
“Mom and Dad hating the idea of getting their prints registered. They still did it.”
“That wasn’t exactly a matter of choice.”
“Lots of things aren’t a matter of choice.”
“I would have had to reload your card. With extra, even.”
“Overtime,” she says. “Nice thing about probationary employment.”
“And you weren’t planning on telling me?”
“I don’t have to inform you about every single aspect of my comings and goings,” she says. “I thought you’d be happy: layabout big sister gets up off your futon and finally gets her act together. This is me getting my damn act together.”
“Up off my futon, maybe. I’m not so certain about the rest.”
“Could we please just not?” She puts away her things and zips up the bag. “I honestly don’t know what you want from me.”
“For you to talk to me. For you to let me in.”
“This is really not the time to be doing the whole family-therapy routine.” she says. “I’m going out tonight. On my own money. Don’t worry, I won’t have to ask you to spot me again.”
“That isn’t even what this is about. I’m worried about you. I want to help.”
“I don’t need anyone’s help,” she says. “I’m doing fine. Better than I have since I got out.”
“You’re killing yourself with work. You’re barely sleeping. Those aren’t the coping habits of someone I’d say is ‘doing fine.’”
“At least I’m working.”
“And doing what?” I say. “I’ve scored you opportunities with at least a dozen good places. I’ve tried to find you jobs–good jobs within your field, jobs that use your degree. I would think you’d be grateful, and instead you’ve washed out of every single interview I’ve landed you.”
“Washed out? I got a good job, on my own, and I didn’t need your help. Better than some pity internship that wants to pay me half of basic income.”
“It’s menial labor,” I say.
“So? It’s all menial now.”
“It’s chain retail.”
“It didn’t use to be a chain!” she says. Her sudden outburst frightens me. “Good god, are you that dense? Do you remember nothing?”
For a moment I can only stammer, searching for words. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
“Elliot Bay,” she says. “Did Dad not ever take you there as a kid?” I wrack my memory. Our father never took me to any such place that I can recall, another reminder that he and Nori always had a different relationship than we did. A stronger relationship. “It was his favorite,” she says. “And they bought it out. God damn it, this town kills everything. They killed it and they took that part of him away from me.”
She’s near tears now. How could I not have known, I wonder? Did our father never choose to share that with me? Was I too selfish, too caught up in my sports and STEM club, my construction sims and my tabletop games? Was Nori just the daughter he cared about more? “I’m sorry,” I say.
“You don’t know anything,” she says. “About me. About this family. You don’t know anything.” She brushes past me and disappears into her study; the door clicks shut behind her.
After a little time has passed, she comes out to find me on the balcony. I can feel her in the doorway, ask her “What?”
“Now’s as good a time as any,” she says. “I found a place. I’ll be moving out probably Sunday. I’m sorry.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” I say. “We can even take my car to haul things.”
“I don’t have that much.”
“I know. Listen, it was wrong of me to downplay your achievements. I’m sorry. You’ve worked really hard. You should be proud.”
“Please don’t,” she says. “Anyway, I should probably get going. I’ll see you tonight.”
“Wait.” I take her hand, clasp it in between mine. With my fingers I can feel the raised welt on her wrist where they’ve injected the probe for the subvoc. The probe opens the channel with touch, and the tattoo transmits the nerve impulses of the throat and larynx. Not so much recorded speech, as a mapping of speech. Once I feel the link, I touch my fingers to the button inked on my collarbone. I love you, I say.
She stares, struggles with the feel of another user’s words inside her head for the first time. After a moment she touches her own throat. I love you too. I’m sorry. Then without another word, she’s out the door and gone.
Noah goes back to his father’s for the week. I go back to working at the office again, rather than from home. With Nori gone, a silence settles back over the condo. It remains in the air even after I pick Noah up again on Saturday evening, hangs over our dinner and our weekly movie night. It begins to feel like she was never there at all.
She wanders into the kitchen on Sunday morning, already showered and dressed, as I’m loading up the dishwasher. She looks at me, then back at Noah doodling at the table. “You guys ready?”
“Just finishing up,” I say. “You need help getting your things packer?”
“Already loaded. It’s just a footlocker.”
“My roommate has furniture.” That tightening of the muscle in her jaw. “So, are we doing this?”
Her new place is out in University Park, a small unit located in a high-rise tenement block. Ugly Brutalist constructions, they crowd together like server arrays, dotted with lights. I remember the protests over zoning density that took place when they first went up. Noah peers overhead, jaw slack with wonder.
We pull into the visitors parking area. On either side of the entrance stand a pair of tall, carefully-landscaped junipers. The elevators don’t work, so we mount the stairs instead. Nori drags her footlocker, the wheels thumping over each step, while I carry a few bags of assorted groceries. Ramen, canned sliced tofu, eggs, assorted produce. She initially resisted my efforts at charity, but my fretting instinct isn’t so easily deterred. Bringing up the rear is Noah, hauling a set of bedding. Pillows, a quilt set, but no sheets–I couldn’t be sure what sort of bed she’d have at her new place, and Nori didn’t seem to know either. Such housewarming gifts as I have to offer.
“Roommate’s supposed to be working,” Nori says. “Won’t be back until later this evening.” She opens the door into a small, crowded space, with flimsy-looking walls and sliding doors. Dirty laundry is draped over the sofa, over the coat-hooks, the chairs. There are unwashed dishes on the living-room table, which also seems to double as the dining-room table. There are no chairs. Posters advertising various live concerts adorn the walls. Cutouts from various glossy fashion mags are strewn over every surface, some pasted into collages. There seems to be a recurring focus on hair, femme hair specifically, in various punk or androgynous styles.
“This roommate, what’s she like?”
“Seems alright,” she says. “Works as a stylist.”
“Mm.” It explains things. I glance out the window–one thing this place affords, if nothing else, is a breathtaking view of the city looking south. Morning sunlight silhouettes the skyline in gold. I ask, “Do you need any help with anything?”
“I’ve got it.” She rolls her foot-locker into a corner, instructs Noah to drop her bedding on the sofa. “So.”
“So.” I take her in. A sense again that I’ve damaged us somehow, in some way that can’t be fixed. Not all things become clearer with hindsight. “You’ll subvoc me if you need anything?”
“I should be alright.” For a moment, I think she might become emotional, but the moment passes. “I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me.”
“It’s nothing,” I say. “Noah, you ready?” He glances back at us, shrugs and heads for the door. Stops to hug Nori as she passes. She smiles. It is the same smile that she gave me, after her diagnosis. It’ll be fine, I remember her saying. I’ve got good doctors, a good treatment plan. Everything’s gonna be just fine, I promise. At what point do we start lying to children and calling it love? Nori and I exchange a look then. “Come on,” I say to Noah.
“Okay.” He heads out the door, and I stand there a moment longer. I know this isn’t goodbye, and yet in some fundamental way it is. “See you around,” I say.
“Yeah. See you.” Rather than prolong the moment, I head for the door.
On the ride home, Noah says, “She isn’t going to come visit us at all, is she?”
I glance back at him in the mirror “I honestly don’t know.” He shrugs, goes back to looking out the window.
Later that afternoon, while we work on our respective projects at the kitchen table, a knock comes at the door. It’s one of Noah’s friends, asking if he can come ride bikes. Noah is up and out the door the instant I call for him. When I return to the table, I notice he’s left his tablet open. On it, the latest panel from his comic: in it, the sleeping woman from before now wanders through an underground ruin, dwarfed by runic symbols. She arrives at a pedestal, pushes a button to reveal a casket like the one she first emerged from. Without a word she climbs inside, seals the lid over herself, closes her eyes as frost obscures the porthole. For a long time, I just stare over that particular image. I rub the bridge of my nose, then turn and attempt to return to my work.
That night, Noah and I visit the Ballard Night Market. The air is alive with music and laughter, with the smell of fried food, dishes from various cultures. We wander among the street trucks, grab pad thai for myself, barbeque-tofu mac and cheese for Noah. We sit on a bench and tuck into our food, listen to the buskers plying their trade, then toss our plates into the nearest incinerator when we’ve finished. Up ahead through the crowds, a familiar face: it’s Troy, out with a woman I don’t recognize, presumably his latest girlfriend. She leans into his shoulder as they walk, and here in the wild I can see how happy they are together. He spies me through the throngs and waves, and though I wave back I resolve not to disturb them. Noah, however, has other ideas. “Dad!” he shouts. “Come on.” He tugs at my sleeve, then slips through the sea of bodies like an eel. I try to keep up but am quickly caught up in the throng. I watch him run up ahead, see him tackle Troy in a full-body hug. Together they all beckon me to join them, but something stays my feet. Something always stays my feet.