"Please, Mina, please come home."
Wilhelmina Asher sighed, unconsciously clinching her jaw as she shifted her cell phone from her left ear to her right. She had switched which side she held the phone three times already since the conversation with her sister had begun. It was as though a piece of her half believed that perhaps one ear would hear something different from what her sister had to say. But she knew better. Desdemona always said the same thing when she called, each and every time.
"You know I can't do that, Mona," she said gently, trying to keep her voice light rather than tense in its tone. "You always get the same answer out of me, so why do you keep on asking?"
"Please," Desdemona repeated. But although the words were the same as always, Wilhelmina thought she heard something different in how she spoke them. Her voice carried an odd strain to it, almost desperation. "Please, Mina, I really mean it this time. I need you to come home."
"That isn't home for me anymore, Mona," Wilhelmina told her. She could hear the impatience coming into her voice this time and didn't make much of an effort to shove it down. "I have my own place. It's been almost six months now, I can't call that house home anymore. I don't know that I ever really could, to be honest."
"It used to be," Desdemona's answer was almost a whisper. "Your home was with me, and my home was with you. It isn't about the place, Mina."
Wilhelmina's heart gave an unwanted twinge of guilt. In a way, she knew her sister was right. It was people, not places, that made a home…but this was exactly why the place that Desdemona was calling her to had been rejected as her home long before. How could she go back to the mother that had more or less checked out on them decades before?
And what was more, the unspoken, terrible piece of truth that she could never say to Desdemona, that she must always keep unsaid. How could she be ready now to go back to her sister, when her sister had been a part of what she had been trying to escape?
She shifted her weight on her narrow twin bed, sitting up right for a moment, then slumping again after this short effort at better posture. Across from her, Noreen's fingers rapidly flew across the keys of her laptop, and she didn't so much as glance up at Wilhelmina's conversation. Wilhelmina was relieved that it was she of her two roommates present for it; had it been Hadley rather than Noreen still present in their shared, cramped little bedroom, she would have had someone listening in on every word with wide eyed interest, brimming over with questions to ask even before Wilhelmina had hung up.
"Desdemona…." Wilhelmina began, keeping her words carefully even. "I love you, and I miss you, and you're right, you're my sister and my home. But I can't go back right now. I'm not ready. You know that you can always meet me whenever you want-"
"I can't," Desdemona interrupted, quickly and adamantly that it left no room for argument. "I can't and you know I can't."
"You can meet me, or come visit me, but I'm not going back to that house," Wilhelmina finished, as determined as her sister to make her point. "I gave you my answer, so stop begging."
"But it's Christmas," Desdemona tried next, her words soft, almost childlike. "Mina, it's Christmas."
"What does that matter?" Wilhelmina asked with some incredulity, a startled laugh escaping her throat before she could swallow it back. "When did we ever do much of anything for that, what makes it suddenly so special now?"
It was true. For as far back as she could remember, there had been no Christmas tree in the Asher family's home, no blinking colored lights strung across their roofs or twinkling in their windows. She and Desdemona never went caroling or made cookies or attended any holiday services or plays unless they were during school hours, and the only gifts that they received were ones they pulled together themselves for each other. Christmas had been no different than any other day of the year, as she grew up, and even more depressing.
Even now, away from her childhood home for the first time, all holiday décor and festivities in her tiny co-shared apartment were not Wilhelmina's doings, but rather her roommate Hadley's. Wilhelmina hadn't seen the point of beginning holiday activities she had never done before, but Hadley, horrified at her intention to continue a non-Christmas tradition, had bucked her on this and gone all out with the tinsel and holly and fake snowmen in any space that could spare them. Her surroundings therefore looked rather different than Wilhelmina was accustomed to, but that didn't mean that her mix of indifference and mild resentment towards the entire affair had changed along with them. Desdemona more than anyone ought to know that.
"It's Christmas," her sister repeated, not really answering her question. "I'll need you, Mina. You'll be alone, and I will be too. We can't be alone on Christmas."
"We aren't alone," Wilhelmina contradicted her. "I have my friends here, and you have Maxine."
But even as she said it, she knew that although technically true, her words were still a lie all the same. Desdemona would certainly be present in the house with their mother, but Maxine Archer's presence was generally no different than being alone, and sometimes much worse.
When Desdemona went silent, not even bothering to dignify that answer with a reply, Wilhelmina sighed, licking her lips as she tried to explain herself, yet again. Even as she spoke she sensed it was hopeless. If Desdemona didn't understand before, there was little hope that this would change now.
"I need this, Mona. I need this space, this new city and new place. I need to be present and active in making my own life, in my own way. I can't come back to all I left and get stuck there."
Like her sister had, she thought silently, but nevertheless, the words seemed to hang between them, as loud as if they had been shouted.
"I know you have friends there," Desdemona said at last, quietly enough that Wilhelmina almost didn't hear. "I know you have a life away. But I don't, Wilhelmina. All I have is you."
She paused, then asked, one more time, softer and more subdued than Wilhelmina had ever heard from her.
"Come back home, Mina. Please."
"I can't," Wilhelmina told her, almost as softly, but firmly too. "I'm sorry, Mina, but I can't. But I'll see you soon, okay? Anywhere else you like. Anywhere but there."
She hung up shortly after, sighing out loud with the frustration of what had become a frequent ordeal on her part. Flinging herself back in bed, she walked her feet up the ceiling of the bunk bed above her, giving it a kick to vent herself somewhat.
She would make it up to her sister somehow, she told herself. She would meet her for dinner one day, her treat. She would tell her all about her new life in Hamilton, and listen to whatever complaints Desdemona had, against herself and otherwise. She would encourage her and build her up, and maybe, just maybe, she would be able to finally convince Desdemona to strike off on her own at last.
But none of those things ever happened, whatever Wilhelmina's intentions. Because two days later, Desdemona was dead.