Under the hood of the car, there was a hissing noise, like steam, the sound of water molecules being shaken apart into gas.
At least that was how I thought it worked. I remembered my chemistry teacher telling us that every molecule of everything was constantly shaking, pulling itself apart and putting itself back together. I’d looked around the classroom, at the posters on the walls and the lab tables, the whiteboard and the cold cement floor. All of it looked still. I pressed my feet into the ground and closed my eyes, hoping to feel if it was shaking.
It wasn’t. Everything was still. The teacher laughed when I asked why we couldn’t feel it.
It’s too small, obviously, he said. Humans aren’t nearly perceptive enough to feel something so small as that actually taking place. We aren’t gods; we don’t perceive even half of what’s around us.
I’d asked her after class if she could feel the world shaking. She said only sometimes when everything was very quiet, and she woke up in the middle of the night. Then she could lie awake and watch everything tremble. It sounded like glasses clinking, she said. Like the sound the china cabinet made whenever a train passed.
I always felt better after talking to her.
Smoke started leaking out from under the hood. I remembered being told in Driver’s Ed what the different colors of smoke meant, but I couldn’t remember which ones were dangerous.
This smoke was blueish and wispy, curling up into the air like apple peels, mingling with the snow that was falling thickly through the headlight beams.
Shit, I said watching as the smoke grew thicker. I knew I had to leave the car, but if I left, I might freeze to death in the dark. I wondered if I would be able to make it back to town without getting frostbite.
It’s your fault you’re in this mess, she said.
I know that, I whispered back, my voice low and hissing, in harmony with the car engine’s sighs. We just need to make it back to town, I said. We can’t wait here, and the car might blow up. I think the blue smoke is a bad sign.
I think any smoke is probably a bad sign, she said.
I sighed, zipping up my coat and sticking my dead cell phone in my pocket, pulling on my gloves. Are you ready? I asked her.
Whenever you are, she said, and I pushed open the door, snow swirling into the car from the darkness.
Years before, we would spend the winter nights painting pictures onto the bricks of the fireplace. Over time they spread out, going higher and higher up the chimney, changing color and texture. Mine were the same lake over and over, the same copse of pine trees. Sometimes I painted them with curly orange needles, the lake pink and glowing like a baby’s cheek. Sometimes the whole lake got swallowed, a reflection of the moon dead center, punching through the water like a bullet hole.
She painted stories onto hers. Sometimes she painted scenes from books we’d read or movies we’d watched. She painted a yellow brick road with little characters walking along it, taking special time painting Toto’s velvety black ears and the sparkles all around Dorothy’s feet.
Other times the stories were her own. She drew epic quests, a dragon letting stars fizzle out on its tongue, underground caves inhabited by jellyfish that looked like ragged, see-through eels.
She laughed at one of my paintings, once, she said that the lake looked like a scalp, the trees growing up from it like thick black hairs, the needles clinging to the branches like head lice. I took the gray paint and drew long diagonal stripes across the still-wet landscape, smudging the shapes and obscuring the scene in a driving rainstorm.
When everyone went to sleep, I snuck back downstairs with the paint set and blotched out every single one of her paintings. I used the brown paint so they would look like normal, unassuming old bricks.
No one ever asked me what happened to the paintings, but the paint set disappeared, and we were never allowed to paint again.
My pictures stayed up, and they watched me, accusingly. I stopped going into the living room, and they started watching me through the walls. I packed my things in a suitcase and never came back, and they took up residence in the back of my head, staring at me out of the corners of old memories. Watching.
The world was dark, and I could feel how the air around me was thick with matter. The snowflakes only served to add to my confusion, giving the whole world the same depth, and I couldn’t be sure whether I was still on the road or lost deep in the forest. I hadn’t run into any trees yet, but I was getting the feeling that since I had stepped out of my car the entire world had gone flat and featureless. The emptiness could go on forever, and I would never find the edge of it. All I could feel beneath my feet was powdery snow, completely undisturbed.
I could see her, though. As always. It was like she had her own personal light. It clung to her arms and coiled itself around her fingers, hid behind her teeth, but it failed to extend its light beyond her. She lent nothing to the dark.
Her mouth was twisted up, like she was trying not to laugh. Look at what a mess you’ve gotten yourself into, she said.
You’re in just as much trouble as I am.
She shrugged. Watch this, she said, flopping over backwards into the snow, spreading her arms and legs. I’m an angel, see?
We used to play in the river. Years later I found out that the bottom was covered with broken glass, though somehow in all that time we had never cut our feet.
We would turn over the biggest rocks we could manage and catch the crayfish that came darting out from underneath. When there weren’t crayfish, there were tiny snails clinging to the slimy undersides of the rocks. We would peel them off and put them in our pockets. We kept their little bodies in a mason jar on the windowsill of our room. The sun dried them up until all that remained was the perfect curlicues of their tiny shells.
The crayfish we would lift delicately from the water. We watched as their little red spindle legs grabbed at the air, stretching and flexing their tails. They were trying to jet away from us, thinking they could shoot through our fingers and disappear amid the boulders and the current.
I was afraid to touch them. I was worried they might grab onto me with their claws and never let go. I didn’t want to think about the slimy way their shells might feel. It was enough to watch them squirm, fearful and disgusting with life.
Once we caught a mother crayfish whose underside was thick with pearly black eggs. I screamed when she held it close to me, and she laughed as I shrank back in fear. We were both ankle-deep in river muck. I didn’t see her take the mother crayfish home. I thought I watched her put it back in the water.
That night I pulled my covers around me like a cocoon, surrounding myself with a layer of cotton stronger than steel, better than armor. Protecting me from the creations of my own brain. I didn’t think about the mother crayfish and the way the eggs clung to her, greasy and thick.
I woke up the next morning to her poking my cheek. I opened my eyes in time to see her going in for a pinch, and I snapped awake, smacking her hand away. I sat up in bed.
What? I asked.
She had that look on her face again. That smirk. I had seen it all the times she had stolen chocolate without our parents realizing it, and she still got dessert. I had seen it the day she convinced one of the neighbor boys to drink ditch water, or when she volunteered to clean the living room so that, on top of her allowance, she could sneak all the quarters that fell between the couch cushions into her pockets.
I had seen it in the second before she knocked me backwards down the slide. My head had hit the hard plastic side with a crack, and I had to be loaded up into an ambulance and taken to the emergency room. I don’t remember sliding down backwards, or what it felt like when my head hit the side. I don’t remember tumbling to the ground at the end, but I remember the sky spinning above me like a compass needle, pulling my eyes and my body in two different directions. I remember the look on her face, and the cracking sound that was so loud it filled my whole body and made my eyes go dark. She didn’t stop crying until I was brought home from the hospital the next day, stitches webbing the back of my head.
And there it was again, the dreaded smirk, hovering over me like a death omen. Was there anything in your bed last night? she asked.
Her smirk faded a bit. What? Her voice was sharp. She ripped back the covers, tearing them from my fingers, and exposed the mess of gore smeared across my pink sheets. It was the remnants of the mother crayfish and all her crayfish babies, crushed underneath me as I slept.
I had been walking for well over an hour. I couldn’t feel my feet, and my fingers had dissolved into a mess of static. Am I going to die out here? I asked her.
She shrugged. How should I know?
I don’t know. I just thought you might.
It’s not like it makes any difference to me.
That’s not a very nice thing to say.
My pace had gotten slower, and still the darkness loomed around me, folding me up inside itself and tucking in the corners. I could feel it brushing against my nose. I could hear the heavy silence of the snowflakes’ mass exodus from the sky.
You’re right, she said. It’s not. She wasn’t looking at me; she was looking out into the formless dark. I wondered if she could see everything, now. The whole world laid out, bare and uninteresting. I knew if she could she wouldn’t tell me.
It wasn’t spite in her voice, and it wasn’t disinterest either. She had never liked talking about death. When we were seven years old, and our grandmother died, we had held hands at the funeral, and she wouldn’t let me go up to see the body. She made me stay with her in the back corner of the sanctuary, hidden behind one of the stone bowls of holy water. Behind the bowl, I had whispered to her. I watched the procession of people passing our grandmother’s coffin, looking solemnly down at her powdery blue face, drowned in wreaths of flowers.
When I die, will you come to my funeral?
No, she said. I won’t.
Because you aren’t going to die.
Everyone dies. You know that.
She shook her head, her features set. She glared up at the coffin, like she thought it was going to leap down from the altar and come rattling down the aisle, snapping its lid, trying to eat us alive. Not us, she said. We’re going to live.
When she died, I didn’t go to her funeral. I couldn’t. When they lowered her into her hole in the ground, a blanket of fake grass covering a mound of displaced earth nearby, I was asleep, or near sleep, or near death.
By the time I was able to visit her grave, the mound had been trampled down, blanketed in pink flowers that were melting in the late summer air. There was an epitaph carved into her gravestone, a quote from Tennyson. If I had a flower for every time I thought of you...I could walk through my garden forever.
I had been standing half a block away when it happened, just close enough that I could still hear the sound, just far enough that I didn’t see her fall. The car stood dead in its tracks. I didn’t move. I, too, stood, trying to unwrite the previous moment. People rushed around me, gathering around her like iron filings to a magnet, spread in spikes and curves along the pavement. I heard people shouting, people pulling out cell phones and turning away. All too late.
I turned, I could hear another car coming. I could hear the crackle and the purr and I let my body go limp, collapsing out into the road.
But it was too late for me, too. By the time I fell the car was already slowing down, the driver was able to stop in time to only crush half of my face and break three of my bones. Whether or not people gathered around me, I don’t remember. I wasn’t there to find out.
When I woke up a week later, she was standing over me in a sterile white hospital room. The room was filled with the sound of murmuring machinery, a chair with a cracked pleather seat sat empty in one corner. For a moment, I forgot what had happened, and I didn’t understand why she was looking at me so strangely, why she was standing so far away, like she didn’t know me. When it came back to me, I looked up at her, about to ask her how she had survived, when I realized how flat she was. The light that fell on her skin was a different color from the fluorescent bulbs that lit the room in a swarm of buzzing bees. She looked like she’d been badly cut out and pasted back into reality, a slight discordance shivering around her fingers and where her feet were supposed to meet the floor.
Am I alive? I asked her.
How should I know? she said.
I tried to sit up, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t get my muscles to work. Where are Mom and Dad? I asked.
She looked down at me coldly. Her eyes were flat, too, like the world was sliding off them, watery and indistinct. Who?
I opened my mouth, but I couldn’t think of how to respond. Dread crept through my veins like ice.
All I know, she said, is that one second I was alive, and the next I was here, with you. I remember the pipes on the bottom of the car, but that’s it. I don’t remember anything else.
Nothing at all? I asked.
She met my eyes with a coldness I had never seen before, the objectivity of a complete stranger. No, she said. Nothing.
My face was mummified in gauze, my heartbeats needles, puncturing the silence.
She didn’t remember being alive. She stayed in the hospital room with me day after day, her feet rooted to the spot, the edges of her ragged and badly cut. When I was finally allowed to leave, she walked out after me.
Why are you following me if you don’t know who I am?
She didn’t give my question too much thought. It’s not like I have anywhere else to go.
You’re a ghost, there’s nothing stopping you.
She pretended not to hear me.
She stood next to me at the gravestone, too. I don’t think she knew it was hers. She laughed at the epitaph, at the garish sadness of the drooping pink flowers. They should have saved their money, she said. They should have left it at If.
The snow still fell thickly, even after what felt like hours of walking. All my understanding of time and space had been replaced by a haze obscuring the edges of my vision. It was like a picture frame or a cloud, making the world warm and distant. Walking with her through the darkness, each step felt like a year, her presence a vice wrapped around my memories, my life. My whole body ached, but it was a hollow kind of ache, more of a remembered pain, a diluted vibrancy. I couldn’t remember where I had been trying to go, why I had ever left my car. I thought I could feel the darkness unbecoming around me, getting looser and deteriorating away into nothing.
Sometimes, when I was in a room crowded with people, or carried a handful of dried willow leaves in my pocket, her voice would get shivery and soft, to the point that I almost couldn’t tell she was there. But as the haze grew thicker, the soft brown clouds encroaching on my vision, she got louder and louder, her voice taking on a kind of sharpness that I hadn’t heard in years.
Is it bad over there? I asked her.
For once, could you give me an answer that isn’t another question? I didn’t want to walk anymore, so I let my legs melt away under me. I wasn’t ready to reach the end. I settled backwards into the snow. It muttered softly as it compressed underneath me.
It’s not like you ever answer any of my questions. She kept standing, looking down at me the same way she did all those years ago in the hospital.
She snorted, then looked off into the snow again. At least when you die, I might be able to go look for my sister.
Your sister? My voice came out in a cracked whisper. The snow sounded like butterfly wings as it settled around me, landing in my hair and on my arms, getting caught in my eyelashes. How do you know you haven’t found her already?
I don’t remember what my sister looked like, she said, but I can feel her close by. I’ll recognize her.
I sighed, and I could feel the air from my lungs getting colder and colder. My cheeks were wet, but it might have just been melted snow. I hope you find her, I whispered.
She smiled when I said that. Her voice was still loud in my ears, but the snow had started falling through her instead of landing on her shoulders. She didn’t seem to notice.
She knelt in the snow next to me, her head tilted to one side. Her eyes had gone soft, and for a moment I wondered if she finally recognized me, now that I was so close to death. If she remembered me.
She reached out, slowly, positioning her hand so it might have been laying against my forehead. I closed my eyes and sighed, trying to feel her molecules shaking against mine, searching for her warmth against my forehead. My breath was uneven, caught like saliva in the back of my throat.
It’s okay, she told me. Everyone dies eventually.
Not us, I said, and when I concentrated I thought I could feel her fingers against my skin, smooth as crayfish shell. We’re going to live.
ANNALISE LOZIER is a junior at Interlochen Arts Academy, where she studies creative writing. She is a Foyle Young Poet of the Year, and her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and the Luminarts Cultural Foundation. Her work has been published in The Jackalope, The Adroit Journal, and The Kenyon Review.
Discussion of Process:
"This is the prompt that I created, based off two short stories."