My sister left her body at seventeen.
Most girls don’t like their bodies, but my sister hated having one at all. She clambered for years to escape, to become so small she could disappear through the eye of the needle threading inside of her, unwind the string that kept her stitched to herself.
Maybe the sadness lived in her body, she said in one of our family therapy sessions, and without it, she could smile again. There was a service, the doctor told us, a temporary decoupling of form and spirit, where both could recuperate without the burden of corporeality. No guarantees, but he had seen it work for other patients.
The day she went was the happiest I had seen her in years. As we clung to each other we made promises: I would text her everything about eighth grade, and she would come back again before my first date.
“You’d never know what to wear without me,” she teased.
I wanted to protest, but it was true; I’d been brought into glamor under her gaze. We’d once spent hours in our shared bathroom reading magazines and painting ourselves with my mother’s abandoned makeup at the three-way mirror, garish reflections repeating into infinity. Powder and glitter and gloss exploded across the counter, trappings of girlhood too expansive to be contained by cabinets.
When she turned thirteen, new items had flowered, petal pink beneath the sink. I inhaled deeply through sanitary wrappers, savoring what I imagined growing up smelled like. But my sister’s period stopped almost as soon as it started, after she began to skip dinner and retreat to the bathroom instead with just her scale and her mirrors for company. At first, my mother had taken her shopping, complimenting her figure with just a hint of jealousy, but then the new clothes started to drop off, too.
People can become ghosts in all kinds of ways. By the time she was disembodied, my sister had already left her life, for the most part. In and out of treatment centers, she missed months of school. Dark blossomed beneath her eyes like bruises, and a fine down grew over her skin. After she was hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat, my parents were willing to try anything, and so they signed the paperwork to unstitch her consciousness like the doctor had described. Her spirit would live in a glowing cerulean sphere on our coffee table, while her body slept at the clinic, nourished with tubes.
It wasn’t so bad at first. She hated the tinny sound of her virtual voice, so she spoke mainly through text that would flash across the orb’s glossy surface — or, for private sister stuff, my cell phone screen. I kept my end of the bargain and flooded her with middle school minutiae, until the end of the first year arrived and she told us she wanted to stay. My parents wanted to hold their daughter, but more importantly, they wanted her as happy as she could be. They agreed to an indefinite retreat.
I didn’t answer her messages for months after that. My best friend had abandoned me, angry and alone, on the cusp of high school, that unknown realm. As I grew into the clothes she left behind, I took over the mantle of teenage-hood for us both, though I threw out the scale and the pads. I couldn’t stand flesh-rendered numbers or the smell of fake flowers mixed with sludgy blood, the incongruity of growing up revealing itself by the month. But I kept my promise, and when the night of my first date arrived, I texted her.
“I need you,” I said.
Ellipses hovered for a full three minutes while she wrote. There was a way she could visit, she wrote, a liminal space between the embodied and the incorporeal.
“It’s not scientific, exactly, but you learn all sorts of things when you’re roaming among the dead.” I would need all four elements, she told me, especially running water. Also, she had missed me.
With the shower raining over gathered stones, and lavender votive candles flickering among the mascara and moisturizer, I set her orb on the counter and closed my eyes while the mirror fogged, willing her to me. When I wiped away the steam, she was standing behind me, as strong as she had been before the sickness, just slightly translucent. She embraced me, a warm, dense cloud in the shape of a girl. A smile cracked her face; my heart bloomed.
“So, who’s the guy?” she asked, eyes conspiratorial and bright.
I paused, looking down and then up through my lashes.
“It’s a girl, actually.”
“So, tell me about her, while I do your makeup.” Though she hadn’t missed a beat, I sensed something unsettled in her voice.
I hopped on the counter and she opened the three-way mirror, hallways stretching to infinity. Her hands, light as fragments of cloud, swept my face. I closed my eyes as she dragged liner across my lids and curled my lashes with mascara, and I told her about my crush from theater camp, about the indie film we were seeing tonight at the art theater downtown.
When she finished, I turned to face myself in the mirror. I looked like her. The air was heavy with steam and regret, and her eyes were full to the brim, ghost water like shimmering jewels.
“I’m sorry I’ve missed so much,” she said.
I breathed in lavender and steam, steadying myself; I could not cry. She had worked too hard, and tonight was too important for us.
“Is it making your sadness go away?” I asked, though by then I knew that sadness just changes shape over time.
We held twin gazes in the mirror for a long time before she spoke.
“Turn around,” she told me. “Let me just add a bit of color.”
I did as she said, forcing a smile so she could brush blush on the curves of my cheeks.
S.E. Hartz (she/her) is a queer fiction writer and environmental scientist living in Brooklyn, New York. Her writing can be found at applestreet, and she has work forthcoming from small leaf press. For musings (both fictional and factual) on nature, time, energy, and apocalypse, follow her on Twitter at @unsilentspring.