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▌what a beautiful mess.
i. hit the heartbrakes.
When Nene dies, time freezes – quite literally. The clocks stop ticking; her room is left in the disarray she'd created before she left for her date. The windows in her room are kept shut, the curtains half-drawn, and the door ajar, just the way it was before she stumbled out of the house, all made up and sparkling. Her scent – Midnight Flower – still hangs in the stale air because nothing in the room could've escaped the daily spraying of perfume. (Before school, after baths, for dates, even when she had to run to the convenience store late at night for milk.) Mom doesn't leave the couch, Dad does not quit smoking. I cycle to school every single day, crash into the school gates each time, and fall with the same lack of grace. It's almost as if my sister had never left, almost as if she'd never existed in the first place.
A week and a half after the funeral, I collide noisily into our garage yet again, scraping my knees. The neighborhood hardly bats an eyelid, because it's a daily occurrence. Mumbling an inaudible swear-word, I hobble into the living room, groping about in the darkness. Mom doesn't get up to switch the lights on when the sky turns dark because she's always on that couch, sleeping or just sitting there and thinking. At least, I assume that she's thinking, because she has a faraway look on her face when she does that. Probably about Nene, and about the things that could've been. I don't blame her, because the entire family does that from time to time. It's just that Mom does it ninety percent of the time, now.
Hobble to the left, hobble to the right, do the bogey wogey and turn on the lights.
Two long streams of blood find their way down my legs and stain my white socks. The red splotches on the off-white makes me think of Nene lying on the ground in her favorite short cardigan that really belonged to me, but somehow found its way into her closet. Maybe she wouldn't have died if I'd made a big fuss about it. If I'd delayed her departure by a few seconds with a small tantrum. If –
I strip my feet of the soiled socks and toss them into the laundry basket. Mom doesn't yell at us to separate the stuff that has potential to stain everything else in the wash – not anymore. She's on the couch, remember? Couch-dwellers don't concern themselves with insignificant things like washing clothes. Dad will just shove everything into the washing machine, anyway. Nobody minds. It was always Nene who insisted on us hand-washing her skirts lined with lace and her expensive underwear ordered over the internet.
The flickering of the lights in the kitchen wakes Mom up. She stirs and I can hear her shifting in her nest of blankets and pillows and couch. There's a slight clatter as she tries to find her glasses on the glass table in front of her – I back-step into the living room to help her out when she pats me on the head, a soft smile on her face.
"Welcome home, Natasha honey."
My name is Michelle.
She leaves me with this and promptly goes back to sleep, forgetting that I'm crouched on the ground, trying to look for her spectacles. I find them anyway, atop a wad of newspapers from last Wednesday. There's a small section dedicated to Nene – "… Natasha Brandon was a girl with a bright future ahead of her… an unfortunate accident." Nene is several times prettier than I am because she took after Grandma, and I'm as plain as a cardboard box. But I have the same shade of blonde at a similar length. Mom must've been half-dreaming. She can't see beyond an inch from her nose without her glasses, anyhow. I dismiss this as a one-off event.
The people at school are nicer than usual. Mr. Ackers, the scary Biology teacher with thick eyebrows, gave me an extension for that report on cell division. Fiona, the girl who sits next to me during History, handed me a whole stack of neatly written out notes on the Iran Revolution for the few days I wasn't in school because of Nene's accident. Accident. I like that word. It sounds better than death, or funeral. Janell, my Chemistry lab partner, took over and did the entire experiment on her own because I didn't know what to do. (They were briefed on the procedure when I was out of school.) Everyone else in class tiptoes around me like I'm going to break in a second and smiles at me cautiously in case I burst into tears or start stabbing them with a pencil. I tell them I'm not going to perforate them with my stationery, but they don't seem to trust me because they don't change their treatment towards the-girl-with-the-dead-sister. But they watch their words and teach me Math. They're nice.
Only one person has stopped being nice – but then again, Rylan's never really bothered about me because I'm the little sister who never ratted them out when they made out on our dining table or when he climbed into Nene's bedroom one night and didn't leave till morning. He used to give me a nod or a look of acknowledgement when we met along the corridors, but now he just pretends that I'm not there. I think he's still angry that I didn't cry when she died in the Emergency Unit, or when her body was lifted into the casket, or when they buried her six feet under. It makes me feel a little indignant because it's not like I didn't feel sad – the tears just never did make their way into my eyes.
Dad doesn't come home till midnight, these days. It's probably a natural response, since the atmosphere at home is so dreary now. Nene was the noisy one in our quiet family, the one with all the latest stories and the As on her essays. The Gold trophies that are still displayed in the glass cabinet under the television. I'm not too good in sports, and the teachers are always telling me to work harder in school. They don't understand that I'm Michelle, not Natasha, and all those Cs and Bs are the maximum of my capabilities. My grades have never really bothered me before, but now that Nene's gone I feel like I should win a race or two, to make up for it.
Even though Mom and Dad won't come to watch me, I decide to take part in inter-class volleyball. The class is shocked into silence when I raise my hand gravely to take up the challenge along with several other brave souls, but they let me into the team anyway. Fiona, the girl who sits next to me in History and who's also in charge of putting the teams in our class together, is pleased with my participation. Because they're all nice. We start training every other day during lunch break, and I'm doing pretty well for a klutz. Minimal bruises along my arms and a swollen finger – everyone expected worse. Their smiles are a little less wary when we have our minds focused on the game, but they revert back to their normal selves when we're showered and changed out for classes. I don't really mind, because we don't talk much during class anyway.
The day before Sports Day, Dad comes back at one in the morning – a new record, even for him. I'm shuffling about in the kitchen with a glass of milk to calm my nerves and force me to get some rest before the big game and bunny slippers that belonged to Nene. (They're half a size too small.) Tiredly, Dad drags out a chair and sort of crumbles down into it, suitcase and all. He smells like alcohol and smoke, and looks like he's ten years older than he really is.
"Go to bed, Natasha," he says to me tiredly, rubbing an arm across his eyes. I stare at him for a while, and wiggle my toes in my slippers. The bunnies' noses move along with my wriggling toes. A few seconds pass, although I'm not too sure how many since all the time-telling devices at home are spoilt, and I figure it's probably because Dad's had too much to drink. From personal experience, I'm quite sure all the blondes in the world look like Nene to him at the moment. Shrugging, I rinse my glass and walk to the bathroom to brush my teeth again.
It's Sports Day. I put my hair up in a knot, just the way Nene did when she ran her marathons.
We're not doing too well, because the opponent class has an average level of skills that are probably better than our best player's. The score is fifteen to four, with us lagging behind by eleven points. My eyes stray to the audience even though I know sportsmen aren't supposed to be distracted, and spot a familiar face in the crowd. He holds my gaze for a short while before he ducks his head and moves away, and I turn my face back to the game, a little annoyed by Rylan's actions. It's a wrong move, because the ball hits the bridge of my nose with a resounding impact. Quite surprisingly, it doesn't knock me out cold. But I do totter around the court, half-dazed… until I feel something warm trickle down my nostrils, mouth, neck and finally my white shirt. Someone yells a name that isn't mine as I plunge into darkness.
People tend to dream when they're unconscious, but I don't. Every night, I hope Nene visits me in my sleep, but she fails me each time. I wake up in the infirmary, feeling sorely disappointed by my dead sister once again. Perhaps her ghost has really gone from this world onto the next because she has no regrets – the people around her sure do, though. Sitting up suddenly, I recoil in pain when my forehead comes into contact with something equally as hard.
A familiar voice.
Clutching my throbbing forehead, I peek through my fingers and see Rylan mirroring my actions.
"What'd you do that for, idiot?!" he yells into my face and stuffs tissue up my nose because it's started bleeding again. Startled, I push him away by instinct, and he falls from his chair in a single graceless move. Watching him lie on the ground flailing for a bit, I begin to laugh even though I know this will only make him angrier. I laugh till my chest hurts, which is something I haven't done in a long while. I laugh till there are tears in my eyes, rolling down my cheeks in huge blobs. It isn't long before I realize that I'm the only one in the white and sparse room making gurgling noises – so I stop. A deathly silence takes over and the air pressure suddenly feels a lot heavier than before. Rylan is looking – no, glaring – at me with a degree of ferocity that cannot be put down onto paper. I'm suddenly a little afraid, afraid of the boy who treated Nene like a princess when she was still alive, afraid of the boy who never failed to wish me Happy Birthday in spite of the fact that we barely knew each other well at all.
"Stop—" I start to whisper, but he cuts me off by standing up, looming over my temporarily bedridden self. I shrink back into the white sheets, unwillingly.
He turns his glare away from me then, as though the sight of me disgusts him. I don't know whether to be thankful that the icy stare has finally found a new target, or to be ashamed that he can't even bear to glance at me. Is it the nosebleed? Does he shy away from the red liquid that we humans produce when we are cut? Or maybe I remind him too much of Nene – but that doesn't explain the contempt in his posture.
My questions are answered without me having to muster the courage to say them out loud.
"You claimed that you couldn't cry for your Nene, but laughing over meaningless crap brings tears so quickly to your eyes." His voice is quiet, but dripping with derision. He says my pet-name for my sister in a terribly derogatory tone. My heart stops beating, and I'm pretty sure that my breathing stops for a bit too. All the mirth from before has dissipated completely into the atmosphere, as though the hilarious incident had never happened. Just like Nene. I don't know what to say, so I don't say anything at all. But it's all right, because he fills up the silence for the two of us.
"And take that knot out of your hair. You look nothing like Natasha."
He leaves, and my chest starts to ache again – although this time, it's not because of laughter. I bend over, hand over heart, and bury my face in the sheets that smell like antiseptic.
Mom calls me Natasha again, when I deliver dinner to her on a tray. Mashed potatoes and stew, whipped up by yours truly. My cooking skills have improved vastly since Nene's accident and Mom's decision to migrate to the couch forever. I just smile and say, "Yes Mama?" just the way Nene used to. Play-acting – I've never been good at it, judging from the roles that my teachers liked to give me. A tree in second grade, a rock in fourth. One member of the flock of birds in the sixth. That had been rather tiring, since they'd put us in big yellow cartons and made us flap non-stop throughout the half-hour performance.
Maybe they just never gave me a chance to act as someone I knew well, because it seems like I'm doing a fabulous job being Nene.
Letting out a groan, Mom leans forward with her nose almost touching her knees. She looks at Natasha-Michelle-me and gives us a weary smile. We smile back, Nene's radiance and my quirkiness combined. This seems to confuse Mom because she blinks twice and runs her arm across her eyes. I move a little closer and ask her if something's wrong, but she keeps her eyes covered for a few minutes.
We're beginning to breathe in unison when all hell breaks loose. Mom gets up violently from the couch for the first time in months, her posture stiff and upright as she stares at me with widened eyes. She raises her right hand and points at me shakily with a crooked index finger. Natasha-Michelle-me dissolves back into just Michelle.
"You're not Natasha," she half-whispers, her voice quivering as well. I step back by instinct, and she takes this as a sign to advance towards me. This is really beginning to scare me, and it doesn't help that I find that my feet are suddenly bolted to the ground.
Her voice cracks as she edges closer, equally afraid of me. It's almost a laughable situation, but the way Mom is gazing at me with a slightly crazed look in her eyes makes it much more serious than it sounds. Biting down on my lip, I figure I should probably say something to calm her down. "Mom, it's me. Michelle," I tell her earnestly, trying to keep my tone mellow and calm.
I'm definite that it doesn't register, because the next thing she says is, "I don't know who you are! What are you doing in my house? Where is Natasha? What did you do to her? Get out of my house!" Her voice escalates in volume with every sentence, and she starts picking up things from the ground to throw at me. A cushion, the remote control, the plate of mashed potatoes which spills all over the coffee table.
The last thing that crosses my mind as I flee from my own house in Nene's bunny slippers is that the sauce from the potatoes is going to stain the carpet.
Halfway down the street, I stop running and catch my breath. Besides, the slippers are hurting my toes since they're way too small for my feet. The sky darkens, and the streetlights flicker on from the other end of the street, like magic. In a span of five seconds or less, the entire stretch of houses is alight. It's quite a beautiful sight, and I make a mental note to come outside to watch it again someday. That is, if I ever get a chance to return home. Letting out a soft sigh, I start walking towards nowhere.
Eventually, I realize that I'll need somewhere to sleep for the night. There's a park just a few lanes away – hopefully a bench or two will be available for me. The night air is getting a little chilly, but I'm doing well because I've got a cardigan on. For someone who's just been thrown out of her house, I'm pretty calm and collected. Dad always says that people who have a plan for the near future are more confident and it seems that he may just be right about that. With my grand plan in mind, my body begins to feel lighter as I make my way to the park.
But Dad has never mentioned what people should do when their plans are foiled.
Rylan is a few meters away, his arms folded and his expression grim. I falter and trip over a gap in the pavement – maybe it's better if I take a detour to the park. Unfortunately, I'm a little too slow for one of our school's fastest soccer players, and he grabs me by the collar of my hoodie. Any attempt to resist and escape is futile, so I just go limp in his hold and wait for him to give me a piece of his mind. Again. He notices this and nudges at me to turn around.
"What the hell are you doing outside?" He looks down at my attire. "In tattered clothes and Natasha's slippers too." I can tell from his tone that he's not amused at all.
Making a face, I'm at quite a loss to what I should say. Mom stopped thinking I'm Natasha and chased me out of the house. Mom got off her couch finally! But she started throwing things at me and I had to run away. I'm going to the park for a sleepover, wanna join me? Mom doesn't seem to know a Michelle…
I decide to tell him a mix of everything. And before I know it, my vision is blurring up with tears that I didn't even know I'd been keeping in. Rylan just stands there, his arm still on my collar, and watches me cry. Not beautiful and quiet sniffling that we see in the movies, but full-out bawling with mucus mixing with salty water and dripping off my chin.
It may be five years later, or just three minutes, when the boy who loved Nene for her laughter and her witty remarks and her short skirts and her soft gasps drags me by the collar to his house. I'm too tired to break away even though his hold isn't so tight anymore, so I just let him pull me along like a dog on a leash. It feels pretty good with the cold wind blowing into my flushed face, anyhow.
Rylan's mother opens the door for us, and doesn't say a word when she sees the mess that I'm in. The dragging continues up the stairs, past the second floor, past the third floor, and finally stops when we're at the attic. Here, Rylan drops me on the ground and doesn't watch me collapse into a heap of limbs. Instead, he starts climbing up this ladder-like thing and makes a hole in the ceiling. Then he disappears through the hole, and I'm left alone in the dark attic, staring at a square of light from the hole he made. After a while, he sticks his head back in and scowls at me. "Are you coming or not?"
Looking at the mothballs, then back at Rylan, I decide that the air outside probably smells less musty.
We lie on the tiles of Rylan's roof, feeling the sharp edges poke through our clothes and into our spines. There aren't many stars in the sky, because we live in a semi-urban part of the country – it seems that the more trees that we cut down and the more concrete that we use, the more the stars disappear.
"You're not Natasha," Rylan says with conviction, but not unkindly. It's a statement, but I feel like I have to respond to this boy who brought me to watch a starless sky instead of letting me sleep in a park.
"No, I'm not," I agree with equal conviction because it's the truth.
"But you're Michelle." A pause, and I hold my breath for reasons I'm unable to fathom.
"You're Michelle, and your heart's still beating." He turns to his side, his back facing me. I continue holding my breath.
His voice is hardly a whisper. "You're Michelle, and you're still alive."
And suddenly, it's easier to breathe.
I call Dad on his cellphone later that night and tell him about Mom. He returns from work as soon as possible and picks me up from Rylan's house in our little car built for four people. The drive home is slow and slightly awkward, because neither of us attempts to make conversation. We reach home finally, and Dad pulls the key out of ignition. Before we get out of the car, he murmurs a soft apology to me. My hand rests on the door handle, and I'm looking at Dad's reflection in the mirror when I say, "I'm sorry too, Dad."
Mom's still in her couch, but now she gets up every Tuesday to go for her regular counseling sessions. Dad tries to come home for dinner at least three times a week, and doesn't complain if it's mashed potatoes with stew on all three days. The kids at school seem to have forgotten about the accident, and Rylan hasn't talked to me since. I've joined the rookie Volleyball club, and will probably never make it into the competitive team because my side always loses.
Nene visits me in my dreams a year later, and I tell her that she's late. She doesn't say a word, but she takes my hand and smiles at me. I smile back at her.
▌End Notes: This will be a series of one-shots that are all linked to each other in some way or other – so, in a sense it'll still be a multi-chaptered story. Hopefully the concept is fresh enough to keep readers and reviews coming! For this chapter, the title was taken from a song of the same name by Black Kids. Thank you for reading.