When Sarah was not-quite-two and I was not-quite-twelve, she ran headlong off the side of a pier that jutted over the frothy waves and shattered rocks of a beach on the West Coast. Or she would have, if I had not grabbed her shirt collar in the moment between her launch into space and her inability to fly.
I stood by the pier rails and was in the perfect position to grab her, but even so I made a near-miss of it. She was serious about jumping. Swimming. Flying. I screamed her name and hugged her close, then pushed her away, my hands on her shoulders, shaking her.
“What were you doing?” I said, not wondering if a kid that young could answer that question.
She sighed. “Nother me,” she said, pointing to the rocks below.
All I saw was seagulls screaming away from wave caps.
“Sarah,” I said, shaking my head.
She threw her chubby arms around my neck and planted a kiss on my cheek. “Kay-kay, Linda,” she said. “Nother-me!”
I laughed, astonished. Stupid fearless baby. I hugged her in return, tight. Maybe I cried a little, too.
Sarah’s run caught our parents flat-footed. The constant background hiss of their angry conversation cut off in mid-accusation. They rushed to catch up with us. Mom wrenched Sarah away.
“What are you doing to her?” she screamed.
Dad gave me his #1 considering stare. He waited to speak until Mom and Sarah walked a few yards away.
“Fair leap, that,” he said. “Saved us the cost of a funeral.”
I stood up.
“Dad,” I said. “I caught her.” I hoped for praise. Didn’t I deserve it?
Dad had gotten quiet since he and Mom began arguing. I guess he reserved all his words for her. He didn’t say anything, just turned away from me. He walked fast and grabbed Sarah’s hand. She beamed up at him.
I followed along behind. They walked in silence until the end of the pier before starting their argument again. Sarah ran back to me and grabbed my hand.
“Sister,” she said.
Dr. Chase folded his chubby hands together dead center on his desk blotter and asked again if I had any questions. His gold wedding band swam in tanned flesh. His nails were ragged, like he chewed them. The name “Andy Kaufman” echoed in my head and threaded around that, the memory of Sarah trying to commit suicide. Her first attempt.
Dr. Chase let me stew a minute then pursed his flesh-toned lips. He spoke again, repeating what he’d already told me. On this repetition, I caught one word in three:
That last word broke me free.
“No one says “You have six months to live” anymore!” I yelled. “That’s the stuff of noir films and bad novels, not real life. Cancer treatments, hell, there are more cancer treatments than there are cancers! How can you say I’ve only got six months to live?”
I gripped the chair arms with ten fingernails. Well, technically, eight fingernails and two thumb nails. Short and strong, they might have ripped into the pretty flower-patterned damask fabric of Dr. Chase’s guest chair except I deliberately calmed myself. One breath in, hold for a three count, one breath out. Okay, calm again.
I paced the office. Thick Aubusson carpet. Full bookshelves. Ostentatiously expensive original artwork on the wall.
And I thought of Sarah again. Sarah, who’d finally managed to kill herself in her search for her “nother-me.” She’d thrown away her life. Mine was being torn from me. I was mad at her. Again.
I practiced the calming breath. Found words.
“Okay, what do I have to do?”
“Sit. Please sit.” He waited until I relaxed in the chair again. “We have a bit to discuss.”
His nurse brought in steaming tea, a sweet herbal chamomile. No caffeine. Calming.
He said a lot more than I heard. I tried to listen and take notes. I forced myself not to stare out the window behind his shoulder. Some green buds on the tree branch that scraped the building wall, some blue sky promise between the leaden March clouds. Six months. I wouldn’t see Halloween.
“Surgery,” Dr. Chase said. “Miss Murray? Linda?”
I focused on him again.
“Do you have someone who can help you?” he said. “Come with you to your appointments?”
I shook my head.
“My nurse will give you an instruction sheet. Surgery on Friday to remove the main tumors. Afterwards we can decide on your course of treatment. You should try to get in touch with your family.”
Golden curls to my mouse-brown lanky hair. Amazed blue eyes to my brown contemplative ones. Slight and willowy in contrast to my own oversized frame. Folks always thought we were chums or neighbors but never guessed she was my full-blood sister, ten years younger. When I was older, I wondered a bit about genetic drift. Neither Dad nor Mom had blue eyes. Well, Dad’s were green. Neither had blonde hair, though Mom had a Nordically-blond brother. Half brother. We were different in other ways, too. I read a lot, stayed indoors a lot, a natural introvert. She played outside a lot, developing her tomboy muscles. But Sarah was my full sister, my little sister, and the only other person in my world.
When Sarah was three and a half and I was more than thirteen and still waiting on my body to grow up, she put herself in the middle of a busy interstate in an eastern county in Tennessee.
Furry pine trees grew right up close to the asphalt and the road itself curved in an unpleasant blind S that followed the drift of a big creek. A wood-frame Church of God stood back of the roadside trees and righteous folks were likely to pull into the parking lot at all hours to visit with God and the pastor.
Pastor Jim ran screaming across the field between the church and our house. My grandparents’ house, that is. Hot pink cinderblock foundation and white clapboard with yellow trim. We never shied from color in our family. I sat under the blooming mimosa, enjoying the summer heat and the prose of Pierre Boulle. My grandparents drank ice tea in the screen porch. Pastor Jim arrived all red and sweating through his white polyester button down shirt, clutching a straw hat.
“Your little girl was in the road,” he said. “Almos’ got hit by a tanker!” He’d run right by me and was shouting into the screen porch, but I dropped my book and dashed down the driveway before my grandparents stood up from their porch chairs.
I didn’t have to run far. A blue car, road-dusty and rusted like all the cars owned by the poorer types in the county, pulled up to the house. The back passenger door squealed open and Sarah popped out of the car.
“Nother-me!” she cried out, smiling and happy as a lark. “Nother-me came and tole me and Nother-me came and….” She slammed herself into my arms. “Nother-me! Look!” And she pointed back to the highway, the busy bit of asphalt that crossed our rural route.
“Don’t see nuthin’, Sarah,” I said, kissing her blonde curls. “You okay?”
The grandparents. Dad’s folks. We’d been stashed on their farm for the summer so he and Mom could have quality alone time. They ran up to us, small tanned Mary, tall blond Hugh, and they reached out for Sarah. Reluctantly I let her go.
They petted her and made sure she wasn’t hurt, no bruising on the golden girl, oh no. No damage and no problems, Mary led her back to the house for some French vanilla ice cream and orange marmalade.
Grandpa Hugh stared down at me, impassive. He chawed a bit on his wad of tobacco.
“S’posed to be watchin’ her, weren’t ya?” He spat out an unpleasant stream of brown spittle. Not at me, give him that. I cringed anyway.
Sarah liked to explore. I liked to read. Watching a three year old was beyond my teenage patience, but no one, especially not me, considered that. For the rest of the summer I shadowed my sister and seldom read. I probably resented her, but I don’t remember that. I remember trailing after her like she was my personal north star.
One warm day we were bored with hide and seek among the tobacco plants.
“Let’s go to the creek,” I said. “You’ll like that.”
Her eyes flashed. She rollercoastered down the path to the creek, avoiding roots and rocks that slammed into my tennies. When I caught up with her she stood on the bank, gathering herself for a leap.
“Stop!” I yelled.
Of course she didn’t stop. Of course she jumped as hard as her sturdy toddler legs would thrust her. She landed a mere foot into the creek, overbalanced on the silty bottom, and sat down hard. A catfish bigger than her arm – bigger than my arm – nibbled on her toes before disappearing into the mud.
“Kisses!” Sarah sang out. “Fish kisses!”
She laughed and held her arms over her head. I pulled her out of the creek. Scattered green sunlight warmed us both. Nother-mes weren’t present. Excluded. We had magic without them.
Between treatments for the metastasized and terminal lung cancer, I had plenty of time to sit and think. About all I had energy for was sitting and thinking. I took up residence on the comfortable couch, overstuffed and dusty. The plaid stadium blanket I draped over my legs kept me warm, warmer than the tortoiseshell purr factory that sometimes slept on my lap and sometimes lay on my shoulders but never strayed too far from me. Comfort in small cat form.
Bedelia liked being petted. I stroked her from head to tail and sometimes her eyes would cross and her purring would escalate to outrageous volume and she would fall over and slide off her perch. She’d shake herself off, lick a bit of fur while checking to see if I’d noticed her disgrace, then strut away, tail high, like nothing had happened. She never left me alone for long. She’d hop back into my lap and demand more attention. Vain cat.
“My sole companion,” I said.
I frowned then. Had I been talking out loud to the cat? Bedelia purred, a prompt for me to continue stroking her fur. I’d said what now? The cat listened while I narrated my childhood and Sarah’s, shared my fears about death and the frustrating but so accurate spoon theory. I tried to laugh and of course started a cough. Red cheeks and reddened tissue paper later, I sipped some water.
Bedelia, watchful through my coughing, reached out a paw and tapped my hand.
“Right,” I said. “Why stop now?”
My childhood with Sarah remained my clearest memory. If my memories could be photographed, the times with Sarah would be digital quality, maybe 8 megapixel in depth, not so much snapshots as short movies. Sarah playing. Sarah laughing. Sarah smiling.
My parents’ divorce, on the other hand, was more a view through a rippled glass window pane, with perhaps a small corner broken loose for a clear view, if I wanted to look. I didn’t.
Sarah was always clear in my memory, every moment.
So I wondered how I could have forgotten about the Nother-mes. Nother-hers? No, she always called them “Nother-mes,” and they haunted our childhood.
Perhaps it was only my childhood they haunted. For Sarah, they were friends, confidantes, playmates. Not haunts.
When she was past six and I was sixteen with a vengeance, our parents finally ended their decades-long war. Mom got custody of Sarah. Neither wanted me and the court wouldn’t choose, so I got to shuttle between the two of them. Two weeks here and two weeks there. Later on, a month here and a couple weeks there. By the end of high school for me, weeknights at Dad’s, weekends with my boyfriend’s family, summers working on whatever paying job I could manage, babysitting, fast food, gopher. I tried to keep close to Sarah but I couldn’t be her buddy and still grow up. I couldn’t. So we drifted apart, me and my ten-years-younger sister.
So she sent her “Nother-mes” to visit me.
At first I had no idea that the glimpses of people smiling at me, making eye contact, brushing up at the bus stop or walking by at the grocery were her “Nother-mes.” I was 16 and full of hormones, enough trouble that my parents didn’t want me, lonely enough that I didn’t want to meet someone’s eyes. Then I noticed that the smile under those eyes was as broad and brilliant as Sarah’s, that the eyes (though seldom her amazed shade of blue) were hers behind a rainbow of tints, that these ghosts were in some individual way each so like my little sister that I couldn’t ultimately believe I hadn’t noticed from the very first moment.
Her Nother-Mes haunted me through my teenage years. They never spoke a full conversation, just a whisper, a syllable, a partial word left to my imagination to puzzle out. One would touch my arm with fingertips. One would pass me and in passing stroke my lank brown hair, grown long in defiance of fashion. One would just stare at me and smile. And one would say, “Sa….” Or “Si….” Or perhaps “Lu….” Sarah? Sister? Love? Maybe. Those were the easiest answers.
But sometimes the easiest answer isn’t the best answer. Or the correct one.
They’d appear and whisper something and I’d know it was time to call her, write her, send her some money or a new sweater. They were her shorthand for greeting cards. I did not notice that they appeared with less frequency, that the daily visits when I was 16 faded to weekly and by the time she went to college, I’d see her Nother-Mes only now and again, like unexpectedly meeting an old friend.
When Sarah was nineteen, in college and brilliant with friends, and I was twenty-nine, happy with my lone existence and only seldom in touch with my sister, she tried to commit suicide with an overdose of pills.
The call broke me out of a meeting at work. I sped to the hospital, trying to remember when I’d last spoken with her.
“Why me?” I asked the nurse at the check-in desk.
“You’re her next-of-kin,” she said.
Sarah lay tiny in the hospital bed, bleached out by the white sheets, the white pillow case framing her face, the white light blazing down from the cruel ceiling fluorescents.
No tubes led into her body. A hospital band circled one wrist. The other wrist was manacled to the bed frame.
“They’re holding me,“ she said. “Did you know, it’s illegal to attempt suicide?”
“Why,” I started. Then, “what…” I paused.
“Not a suicide attempt, Linda,” she said. “Just a dosage mistake.”
Did I believe her? She’d never lied to me before, not that I knew.
They released her into my custody after a bit of discussion and signing of paperwork. She maintained it was not an effort to end it all, just forgetting that she’d already had her two pills, and two pills before that, and four pills to start, all within an hour or so. I let her talk on the drive to my home and her words washed over me like a welcome evening breeze. My sister was with me, the true sister, not one of her “Nother-Me” haunts.
“They don’t stay long,” she said. “A day or two, then they leave. I never see them again. I think they don’t like me,” and she laughed.
A while later, she said, “And it’s harder to call them up now. I think I might have to get really close to death to get one to separate out.”
I pulled to the side of the road. Shaking mad. I gripped the steering wheel.
“I need you. Not your fuckin’ Nother-Mes. You. Don’t ever think about it.”
She was quiet and I started up the car again, pulled back into traffic, lost myself in my internal horror, so I almost missed what she said.
“I need them.”
She stayed with me a while. I followed her to the pub and to the movies and to the live music at the bookstores. For the month she stayed with me I lived in her glow just as I’d done during our childhood. She was still my north star.
No Nother-Mes showed up.
She returned to college. I wrote her regularly, a duty marked on my calendar. I told her about my work, my plants, my occasional dates. She got her degree, then another one, then work. She was never sad or down or even wanting for company. For a while I looked for her haunts to visit me, but they stopped coming. I assumed that meant she was not splitting them off, not cutting the edge of possibilities so that her likely existence spawned two lives, one her, one her fetch. I assumed she was fine and that she didn’t answer my cards and care packages because she was busy. I assumed.
Was it inevitable? A beautiful summer Saturday. I enjoyed my book and my coffee. The phone tore me away from my internal comforts.
The caller id said she was calling.
“Sarah! Long time no hear!”
A gruff police officer’s voice. “Am I speaking to Miss Linda Murray?”
I involuntarily sat on the floor. In a flash of presentiment I knew what he’d say. I stared at a picture of Sarah that hung on the wall. I even had an idea how. The scene appeared full-drawn in my imagination.
She’d lost her footing while hiking a trail in the Angeles Forest. Not a dangerous path, not a steep slope. Still, she’d managed to fall and break and die.
It was a waste of effort, I thought viciously. She’d crossed the line. No more Nother-Mes. No more Sarah. Damn her, I thought.
Her estate was easy to settle. Answering her friends’ condolence cards, not so much. I grew shaky, angry and curt with my replies. Yes, it was a tragedy. Yes, she’d have a service. Please come. Yes, she’d like donations sent in her name. No, I didn’t need anything.
I gave her cat a home. Bedelia, a soft tortoiseshell. The cat and I clung to each other in our neediness.
She was the first to notice that I coughed too much. Me, the non-smoker, with a sudden smoker’s cough. And then red frothy spit. And then a doctor giving me a terminal sentence. Cats are supposed abandon sick owners. Death has a smell and cats know to avoid it. But Bedelia didn’t leave me. She became even more affectionate.
I showed her the arcs of my scars after the first surgery. She tried to lick them.
“Ew, gross, Bedelia!” I pushed her away.
The pills made me ill. The pills and the radiation treatments made me dizzy. The pills and the radiation treatments and the fear exhausted me. I trudged to work and I trudged to the hospital and I trudged home and then one day I could no longer trudge. I stopped. And I fell.
When I woke I was at home. In bed, sheet drawn to my neck, Bedelia beside me and unhappily quiet. Bedelia not purring. I stroked her. She batted at my hand with her nose then leaped onto my chest.
“Bedelia, get off,” I whispered.
She lay down full length and patted my face.
I opened my eyes.
“Sarah.” Wonder threaded through the fog in my head but no fear. Never fear.
Sarah wore a business suit. She’d been buried in a business suit much like that one. Perhaps a slightly different shade of navy. I wondered if my fever was high in hallucination territory.
Sarah did not talk to me, she merely bent over me and wiped my face with a cool cloth. She helped me swallow a pill. Bedelia hissed at her. Sarah walked away.
When I woke again two Sarahs were in the room, neither one the business suit Sarah. Bedelia guarded my bedside, her ears clenched against her head. I stroked her, hoping to calm her. Hoping to calm me.
I didn’t speak to them. They did not speak to me. They stayed. They cooled my forehead and fed me pills and even fed Bedelia for me. Or for Sarah. Sarah’s cat. Sarah’s cat didn’t like Sarah’s haunts but she never tried to scratch them.
I wove in and out of sleep. Every time I opened my eyes again another Sarah had joined the crowd. They wandered freely through my house. One turned on music, my favorite rock n roll, and danced. I heard the music, I heard the girl’s dancing feet and moving body.
Other Sarahs watched television with me. The shows blurred together. My periods of wakefulness decreased. My bouts of pain increased. My sister, all my sisters, held death-watch for me. I slid peacefully through the days towards autumn knowing she was there.
One morning I woke and only a single Sarah sat at my bedside. Her navy business suit was as neat and unwrinkled as the first time I’d seen her. Bedelia was not in attendance but that was all right. Sarah needed to communicate with me. She turned off music and television and closed the window shades.
“Soon,” she whispered. And, painfully, “Sisters.” And the last word she dredged up, “Once.”
I clutched at her with my claw of a hand. “Dying,” I said. She nodded. “I miss Sarah,” I said. The Nother-Me wept. “How do I…?”
Sarah touched my lips with her finger. “Soon,” she whispered again. I couldn’t take my fever-sanded eyes from her face. I couldn’t keep my fever-weary eyes open. I couldn’t keep breathing. I couldn’t.
I woke. The curtains were open to a white autumn sky. Bedelia kept her place on the bed next to me, snoring in that dignified cat way. I saw no Sarahs.
I eased out of bed. I hadn’t been out of bed in days, unable to summon the energy. I wasn’t cold. Or hot. Or even tired. In fact, I felt fine. I felt like a whole new me. Another me, altogether.
Dr. Chase said that remissions happened all the time. He put me on a maintenance schedule and told me that in five years, I’d be considered a survivor.
I didn’t need five years to know that.
Once upon a time, I wished I could split off instant friends, Nother-Mes, just like Sarah. I envied her so much. I was young and stupid then. Oh lord, I hope I’ve learned better now.
Jude-Marie Green, a Clarion West 2010 graduate, has also recently been published in Electric Spec Online, Jack-O-Spec, and
M-Brane Science Fiction.