The summer my sister Mindi turned thirteen and the Leukemia began chewing her bones to lace, she built a city of ghosts. For the towers, she stole matchbooks from the forgotten depths of Mom’s purses. For the ghosts, she snipped obituaries from Dad’s Sunday Times. It was June when she finally gathered a bag full of them from her dresser drawer and snuck into the backyard.
I found her behind the abandoned chicken coop, near where I’d once found a nest of field mice. I remembered the way they squealed like tea kettles when I squeezed them, how their little, twig legs kicked like broken pinwheels as they tried to get away. How Mindi had begged me to stop, looked at me like Mom sometimes did and said, “Why can’t you just be normal?”
I loved Mindi.
I wanted to be normal for her.
The chemo had carved Mindi’s scowl to a thinness I barely recognized when she saw me peeping from behind the corner of the chicken coop that day. “Get out of here,” she said. “Geez. You’re such a pest.”
I crossed my arms and planted my feet like a normal little sister would. “If you don’t let me stay, I’m telling Mom.”
Mindi rolled her eyes. “Just don’t get in the way.”
Mindi stacked matches like she played Legos, her lower lip sucked between her teeth as she constructed Eiffel Towers and Empire State Buildings. Beneath them, she laid her ghosts. There was an old man, head like a crackled egg, a woman with missing teeth, a little girl with a frilled collar and wide, saucer eyes. I imagined the matches above them flaring to life, flames blackening their faces and crisping their flat, newspaper hair. The fire would hopscotch from them to the chicken coop, across the brown lawn, onto our back porch. Into the house.
It had been a dry summer.
It wouldn’t take much for a flame to catch…
“Mindi!” Mom’s voice snapped from the kitchen. “Come inside! It’s time for your pills!”
I threw a clump of dirt at the house, but Mindi stood.
“Wait!” My voice cracked, desperate for her to stay. “Aren’t you going to light them?”
Mindi paused, still as stone beside her miniature city. For a moment, I thought she was going to do it. Light them. Burn them. But Mom called again, sounding worried, and when Mindi looked at me, her expression shifted like she saw something she recognized but didn’t trust.
“Come on,” she said. “I gotta take my medicine.”
“Look, I built it! I can do whatever I want with it!” Mindi shoved the largest of her towers to the ground with her palm and kicked dry earth over her ghosts. She ran to the house alone, the remains of her city all around me.
* * *
“Grownups are liars,” Mindi told me three months later with hospital tubes curling away from her like unraveled birthday streamers. Monitors flickered above her, neon signs nobody would teach us to read. Our parents hovered in the doorway with Mindi’s doctor, just far enough into the hallway that the beeps and hums garbled their voices.
I walked my fingers over the rainbow wallpaper beside Mindi’s bed and pretended not to hear her.
“They’re going to say everything’s going to be okay,” Mindi continued. “That I’m all right. I’m not.”
I looked at her. Her skin was pale yellow/green. Her eyes were swaddled in purple. I ripped a piece of rainbow away from the wall. “Shut up, Mindi.”
“You shut up.” She sounded so tired. So old.
I peeled another strip of wallpaper away and, when the doctor glanced over his shoulder at us, threw the crumpled rainbow onto the floor, daring him to scold me. His eyes softened, as if the moment was somehow his to grieve, and I imagined ripping that expression from his face with my fingernails, jamming the needles sprouting from my sister’s arm into his skull, draining the sorrow he had no business holding away from him.
Ducking beneath the scaffold of tubes, I climbed onto my sister’s bed, curled against her and closed my eyes.
“I hate him,” I said.
Mindi sighed. “You’re such a baby.”
“I hate all of them.”
Mindi didn’t reply. Instead, she held me.
When I didn’t cry, she held me tighter.
* * *
Mindi’s ashes arrived on a Wednesday afternoon.
Mom stared at the small, impossibly heavy box my sister had been poured into like it had been delivered to the wrong address, until Dad pried it away from her and hid Mindi in the back of the guest room closet.
I grabbed his sleeve, furious, screaming, begging him not to put her in there. Didn’t Mindi deserve to be in her own room at least? But he told me to stop. As he slid my big sister into that horrible, dark space and closed the door, he lied and said everything was “going to be okay.”
That night, while my parents slept, I rescued Mindi from that closet. I clutched her box to my chest and carried her to her room, the cardboard smooth under my palm as I set her on the bed beside me. I pictured my sister inside, folded like a secret note, the entirety of her body pressed into temporary stillness.
I opened the box.
And I imagined Mindi emerging, soft and dark as smoke. I imagined my heart kicking frantically against my ribs, urging me to run as she fluttered toward me, papery and gray like the ghosts she’d built her matchstick city for. Maybe Mindi would lean against me then, her skin cool and comforting, her eyes bright in the moonlight, and I would turn and open her dresser drawer to retrieve the last of her matches.
Mindi wouldn’t look at me like I was abnormal, this time. This time, she would only look at me like she loved me, like I was her sister, and she would whisper, “It’s been a dry summer.”
It wouldn’t take much for a flame to catch.
© 2020 Lora Gray