“I went back to Egypt last night,” said my sister, with horrible cheer, “to my real family.”
Mom and Dad had already left for work. The best I could manage to news like this over breakfast was a feeble “oh yeah?”
Barri laughed. “I always knew I didn’t belong here, but wow!”
Like I do? I thought — the yelling, the cold silences vibrating like glaciers ready to crack — who in hell does?
My sister leaned in, tapping my nose with a hard finger.
“They do,” she said; “they made their own choices. They deserve to be miserable.”
“You’re getting to be really creepy,” I said.
Barri’d never been big-sisterish but there hadn’t been any malice to it; just that you were mostly on your own.
She had a talent for chilling stories, measuring her audience’s temperature pretty well; she’d loop her way back just before you started to freeze.
These past few months though she’d been changing into something I couldn’t understand, and it wasn’t hormones or adolescence or normal life processes. She was taller but the rest was different in ways I didn’t have words for.
She moved like she’d figured out a way to melt the edges of her bones, folding and unfolding herself with noiseless energy. Writers use words like pantherish and snakelike but she was all Barri and terrible in her beauty. I couldn’t understand how nobody else noticed.
“I might be able to work out a place for you too,” Barri said; “you’re not entirely useless.”
“Gee, thanks,” I said. “Turn me into a hewer of water.”
Her eyes seemed to enlarge horizontally, like a lake spreading outwards.
“That’s clever,” she said. “There’s more to you than you show.”
And then the rest of the day not another word about it. Barri was in her room, or the garden, or out in the front yard staring down the leafy street to some point into infinity, and I was mostly stretched out reading or watching TV in the family room that was only congenial when the rest of the family wasn’t in it. We were old enough this summer to look after ourselves all day and it was a bad year for money, and Barri had looked at them and said “why don’t you just let us be?”
They were coming home late that night and had left us a couple of twenties to get something for dinner and I asked Barri what sort of pizza she wanted.
“Quails roasted with garlic, in pomegranate sauce,” she said; “you think I give a damn about pizza?” She walked away laughing.
I thought about it for awhile and then for the first time in my life just ordered exactly what I like myself. When it showed up Barri looked at it, and grinned, and said she was going to the store.
She came back with two pints of ice cream — the flavor she liked, and the one I did. I don’t think she’d ever spent her own money on me before.
“You keep pleasantly surprising me,” she said, digging into her Ben & Jerry’s with a kind of fastidious voraciousness; “consider it noblesse oblige. I’ll miss this,” she added, “for sure.”
I’d kept the food in the oven and when our parents got home I set it out in the dining room. They asked if we’d eaten and I said yeah and they said good as they took out stuff from their briefcases and spread it out on the other half of the table.
Barri, walking past, hardly glanced at them, as though they were acquaintances too inconsequential to remember.
After our showers that night she came and sat on my bed.
“I am the destroyer and the rearranger,” she said softly; “the crocodile dreams of me.” She traced the bones of my jaw with that hard little finger.
“I won’t return,” Barri said; “you can imagine how my people would take that, now I’ve restored myself to them. They’ll welcome you if I want them to, and when you’re ready you can come right on down.” She laughed again, that awful, awful laugh.
In the morning she wasn’t there. None of her things were gone. Her bed had been slept in, or lain in, the covers kicked away.
Everyone asked me everything they could think of and all I said was I don’t know. Was I going to send myself straight to the loony bin by telling them where she was?
I knew it was true — or I didn’t at first but later on I did. The dreams started slowly and they were like wisps of spiderweb you hardly see but can’t get off your fingers; I’d wake up uneasy and my head full of things I couldn’t get into proper focus.
It’s winter now but all I can feel is heat. When I get into bed the sand trickles between my toes. I like the way my body moves now, folding and unfolding, ready to become the crocodile that follows after Barri.
Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine; her posts on the craft of writing keep materializing on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)